Serving pancakes & community

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Barbara Ruben
Jane and Jeff Bulman show off a plate of pancakes outside their Original Pancake House location in Bethesda, Md. The Bulmans provide a free Christmas breakfast for homeless and disadvantaged area residents at two of their restaurants each year.
Photo by Frank Klein

Each Christmas morning, as many families are opening presents around their tree, more than 900 guests pour into the Original Pancake House locations in Falls Church, Va., and Bethesda, Md. The restaurants aren’t open to the public that day, but the patrons tucking into platters of pancakes, eggs and bacon aren’t traditional customers, either.

Owners Jeff and Jane Bulman open their doors to homeless and disadvantaged guests each Christmas for a free breakfast, complete with table service. They even use the restaurant’s regular plates and utensils rather than the throwaways many shelters use.

Dozens of volunteers bring out the food and bus tables during the decade-old event. Santa sometimes makes an appearance, and choral groups sing holiday music.

“It’s tremendous, not only from the aspect of providing a place [on Christmas Day] for people who don’t have a place to be, but also for the volunteers and kids of the volunteers,” said Jane Bulman, 66.

“It’s really important for [young people] to develop an interest in helping others and recognize they’re fortunate in what they have,” Bulman continued. “I think everybody enjoys it. Everybody gets something positive out of it. That’s in essence why we do it.”

The Bulmans also collect donations of winter clothing for their Christmas guests in their three restaurants (they have another location in Rockville, Md., that doesn’t host a Christmas breakfast). Volunteers knit hats and scarves for the guests as well.

During the rest of the year, the Bulmans’ Original Pancake House restaurants devote one Thursday a month to raising money for local nonprofits, such as Manna Food Center and the Prevention of Blindness Society of Metropolitan Washington.

On those days, 15 percent of sales goes to the designated organization. They are now looking at expanding the program to give money to local schools.

When they redecorated the restaurants, the Bulmans gave the used chairs to A Wider Circle, a nonprofit in Silver Spring, Md., that provides furniture to those transitioning from shelters to their own homes and to others who cannot afford to buy their own furniture.

“It’s a cliché to say you want to give back to the community, but actually, you need to do this,” Jeff Bulman, 70, said of the charitable work he does through his restaurants.

Becoming restaurateurs

More than 20 years ago, Jeff told Jane that he wanted to buy into the Original Pancake franchise, which now has about 110 restaurants throughout the country.

The economy in the late 1980s was bad, and Jeff wanted a change from his career working in wholesale office furniture. Jane, a social worker, wasn’t so sure.

“I initially was resistant,” she recalled. “I knew it was a 24-hour job and our kids were young, and there’s no guarantee with restaurants. Many don’t succeed; you’re lucky if they do. I thought it was a tremendous investment emotionally and physically,” she said.

But after taking their two children on a tour of the meager breakfast offerings available at the time near their Bethesda home, they decided the area was ripe for a restaurant that served a variety of breakfast foods, along with sandwiches and other lunch items.

Jeff went to the company’s corporate headquarters in Oregon for an intensive crash course in running an Original Pancake House. When he came back and opened his restaurants, he first worked seven days a week, cooking and doing other hands-on tasks.

Today, he spends much of his time on marketing and public relations for the restaurants, while Jane works on the administrative side.

But Jeff said working in the kitchen was invaluable. “My philosophy is, if I want to correct someone, I should be able to show them how to do it right,” he said.

Helping others

Once the restaurants got off the ground, the Bulmans weren’t content to sit back. Jeff saw that while there were area events that fed the homeless on Thanksgiving, there wasn’t much for them at Christmas. So they started what is now a tradition.

Today, the Original Pancake House partners with numerous nonprofits, including Homestretch, a Northern Virginia nonprofit that helps homeless families become self-sufficient, and Shelter House, which provides shelters for homeless families and victims of domestic violence in Fairfax County. These groups get the word out about the breakfast to those they serve and help bring the guests to the restaurants.

Falls Church resident Annie Turner helps coordinate the Northern Virginia nonprofits. She began as a volunteer, but when she saw a posting for a part-time bookkeeping position with the Original Pancake House, she applied and got the job.

“They’re very, very great people to work with,” she said of the Bulmans. “They’re so kind and thoughtful and just very hard working, just very generous people. They’re like that with all their employees and the people that come in,” Turner said.

The restaurants used to put up notices seeking volunteers to help out on Christmas morning, but now so many return year after year they no longer need to. At least 60 volunteers clamor to sign up in the early fall at each restaurant.

The Bulmans’ children, who both live in the area, also help. The couple also has four grandchildren, but because the oldest is only 7, they are too young to volunteer — for now.

Volunteers treat breakfast guests like regular restaurant patrons. They seat them at tables as they arrive, serve them breakfast, and help clear the tables.

“From the get go, we said there’s not going to be Styrofoam anything, no plastic. It’s all our silverware, our glassware,” Jeff said. “I want them served. I don’t want it to be like a food pantry. It’s Christmas morning, and I just want them to feel special.”

Although new volunteers aren’t needed, customers are still welcome to donate gently used coats and to make contributions to help pay for the breakfasts.

“I’m Jewish and I thought it would be my Jewish friends and Jewish customers [who would come out on Christmas Day to help], and I was so wrong there,” Jeff said. “It’s all religious groups.

“I especially find that my Christian customers and volunteers want to bring their kids to teach them that Christmas is not about getting, it’s about giving. And I think that’s about the most beautiful thing.”

Original Pancake Houses are located at 7395 Lee Highway, Falls Church, Va., (703) 698-6292; 12224 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md. (301) 468-0886; and 7703 Woodmont Ave, Bethesda, Md., (301) 986-0285.