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Coffee and conversation
By LISA BRITTON
Baker City Herald
Anne Wickert can tell you, with one sweeping glance of the dining room, which diners are regulars at McDonald's.
And by regular she means almost every day.
"They're not a regular they're here every Tuesday," she says of someone carrying out a bag of food.
Wickert, 84, takes her daily walk down to McDonald's for lunch of a "double cheeseburger and senior coffee."
"When I walk in, they have my order ready," she says with a smile.
And on Tuesdays, she greets the employees with that day's lucky number at Bi-Mart.
Wickert is just one of many regulars who gather at McDonald's for the 75-cent coffee and maybe a snack.
But most are here for the conversation.
"There's usually a different group every hour," says assistant manager Lynn Weems. "It's a real coffee hopping place."
Each group has its own territory, and Christina Cox, who watches over the lobby, knows most every regular by name.
She describes the groups as she points to different areas of the dining room: "The men's group, the breakfast group, all they do is laugh."
"And then we have the fellows who hit every group," she says.
She calls them "the roamers."
"They'll come in, sit and have breakfast. Then go sit with the men, then with the ladies," Cox says. "It's a lot of good banter."
And some people, she says, make multiple trips throughout the day for food, coffee, or socializing.
"There's always somebody to sit and talk with," Cox says of those who show up again and again. "It's kind of like a family here."
One group is a bit down in numbers this Tuesday, but that doesn't stop the conversation of Mildred Bunch, Katie Benintendi and Dot and Lyle Rager.
"I come almost every day unless I'm doing something else," Bunch says.
This group started in 1992 at The Donut Factory, a business that closed years ago.
"Then we came here because it was no smoking," Bunch says.
And they just kept coming.
"We drink coffee and talk, talk, talk," Bunch says. "It's the time to get caught up on everything solve the world's problems."
They stay for about an hour, then it's off to Bi-Mart to check lucky numbers and visit with more people.
"There are lots of people it takes you 30 minutes at least," Bunch says.
As they tug on their jackets, Benintendi grabs the two empty coffee cups and flattened apple pie container.
"I'll take the dishes," she says
with a giggle.
(Today, she says, she and Bunch splurged and shared a pie.)
Though the groups claim their own spots, everyone seems to know everyone else.
"We always talk to each other, clear across the room," Bunch says.
And non-regulars sure stand out.
"Who's that lady?" Benintendi asks, eyeing a newcomer to the restaurant.
For the most part, though, local faces are familiar.
For Johnny and Donna Cummings, McDonald's offered a perfect venue for meeting others when they moved here eight years ago.
"We just started coming for coffee," Donna says. "We've met wonderful people it's just like family."
"A lot of good people, a lot of good stories," Johnny says.
Their length of stay varies from visit to visit.
"Sometimes an hour, maybe two if the conversation's good," she says with a smile.
Across the table sits Gail Potter, who worked at this McDonald's 15 years ago.
Regular groups came even then.
"Always," she says.
And it isn't just Baker City.
"In 2002, my husband and I went back East and hit every McDonald's, and there are groups everywhere," she says.
In addition to conversation with their group, the Cummings enjoy visiting with non-regulars travelers, students and visiting senior buses.
"You'd be surprised at how friendly travelers are," Donna says.
Of course, maybe those tourists are just mirroring the town.
"This is a really friendly town. What more can a person ask for?" Donna says.