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Farmers Home Restaurant: Homecooked meals with a side of compassion

Establishment launched a Pay it Forward program last year to offer meals to less fortunate

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May 13, 2024

ANTIGO – Farmers Home Restaurant has been a staple in the City of Antigo for decades.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone remotely familiar with the area who hasn’t heard of it, let alone hasn’t eaten there.

Farmers Home Restaurant dates to Antigo’s earliest days – with documents suggesting it was erected at the site, located along what was once a railroad beltline, in the late 1800s.

In “The History of Langlade County,” written in 1922, there is a mention of “Farmers Headquarters,” which author Robert Dessureau indicated was opened in 1919 by Joseph Seis and Frank Grossman.

Tracy Bussey – who manages the restaurant for her parents Chuck and Julie Turney – said the business’s unusual layout, with separate doors for dining and drinking, is a direct reflection of those days.

“Back then, the farmers would come into town and bring their wives,” she said. “The women wouldn’t be allowed in the bar, so they would sit in the dining room. The restrooms are even separated, with the men’s off the bar and women’s off the dining room.”

Bussey said there was also a barber shop snuggled into a corner of the building, providing a true “home” for the farmers, as well as townspeople.

“It has been the Farmers Home since day one,” she said. “The guys would sit at the bar and get a snit, and the women would have pie and ice cream in the dining room.”

Bussey said the Seis family operated Farmers Home into the 1960s, then there was a succession of owners until her parents purchased it in 1991.

“I was 14 when they bought the restaurant,” she said. “I started as a dishwasher, and when I turned 18, I began bartending. I can still remember the jokes those old guys who stopped by in the afternoons would tell. We had so much fun.”

Though Bussey serves as the restaurant’s manager today, she said carrying on the family business was initially the path she planned to follow.

Passionate about education, Bussey said she parlayed that interest into a position with the Antigo school district as an intervention/enrichment (I.E.) specialist – a rewarding career.

That all changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

With help almost impossible to find and her aging parents stepping back from day-to-day duties, Bussey said she returned to Farmers Home full-time.

Though she resigned from her position with the district, Bussey said she retained her passion for her students, who call her “Mama Bussey.”

“I have a big heart for those kids, and I brought that back with me to the restaurant,” she said.

That connection, Bussey said, started with catering the dinners for the football team, with the local Gridiron Club sponsoring nine dinners on Thursdays throughout the season.

Volleyball and bowling team dinners, also supported by parents and donors, soon followed.

From there, Bussey said, it seems a natural step to create the Pay It Forward program. 

Pay it Forward Program

For the past seven months, Bussey said the venerable restaurant has been “paying it forward,” accepting donations from customers, businesses and supporters to provide free, home-cooked meals to those in need.

Over that time, she said thousands of dollars have been raised and hundreds of meals served, no questions asked.

“This has resonated,” she said. “Customers and supporters understand there is a need. People here, and in many places, often must go without a home-cooked meal. We’re trying to help change that.”

The idea behind the program, Bussey said, was inspired by a social media post she read about similar Pay it Forward programs.

“I pondered whether it would be something I would like to try here,” she said. “I put a post out about it, and by the time I closed that afternoon, I had more than $500 in donations.”

At first, Bussey said, the program was basic.

Customers could pay for a breakfast or dinner and the ticket would be placed on the wall. Someone looking for a meal merely had to pick up the ticket and present it to their server. 

After a local television news reporter, Muhammad Abdul Qawee of WJFW in Rhinelander, came to do a story about the program, Bussey said “it just snowballed.”

“He told me when he left that day, he would make this blow up,” she said. “He sent it to CNN and NBC, and it went across the country. We were getting donations, along with cards and letters from everywhere, including from people who remembered eating here with their parents and families many years ago. It was unbelievable.”

With that influx of donations, Bussey said she expanded the program to provide vouchers for free meals and nonalcoholic drinks to those utilizing the Antigo, Elcho and White Lake food pantries.

She said she also worked with the Boys & Girls Club of Langlade County, the AVAIL organization for victims of abuse and the healthcare center to find and assist those in need.

Eventually, Bussey said, Farmers Home branched out into serving free dinners once a month to various organizations – the first being the Langlade County Senior Citizen Center, where the overwhelming response to the sign-up led her to recruit seniors of another sort – from Antigo High School – to help with the cooking and the serving.

The menu, she said, included pulled pork sandwiches, mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans along with water or lemonade.

“I’ve known most of those kids since they were all little,” she said. “My son went to kindergarten with most of them, so they’ve been together for 12 years.”

Bussey said the goal of $500 in donations a month to sustain the program has been met month after month, without fail.

She said the restaurant’s wall continues to be filled with tickets along with cards and letters from donors across the country.

One guest check, Bussey said, even bears a note stating the donor was buying the meal in honor of his late wife.

The notes posted on the wall, she said, continue to be heartfelt.

“Keep this going,” a Green Bay writer said. “Please accept this donation toward a meal for someone who is hungry. You are a kind soul.”

Another writer said he saw the story and “awoke in the early morning hours and a feeling of urgency came over me to help.” 

A sense of community

Bussey said the Pay It Forward program has brought people to the restaurant, but it is the food and camaraderie that keeps them coming back.

Farmers Home, she said, is known for its potato pancakes – an obvious favorite for a restaurant located amid the Antigo Flats famous for growing spuds – its chicken dinners, Friday cod or perch fish fries and the daily array of burgers, sandwiches and chicken dumpling soup. Meatloaf, beef tips and other comfort food favorites, Bussey said, also make regular appearances.

She said she continues to maintain a strong social media presence, even offering a weekly trivia contest with questions, such as:

  • How many pounds of potatoes do we use in a week? (300)
  • How many pounds of cheese curds do we go through weekly? (40)
  • A nod to those breakfast specials, how many pounds of bacon, eggs and slices of American cheese weekly? 60 pounds, 30 dozen and 180 slices, respectively

Bussey said she hopes to continue building the restaurant’s business for her children if they wish to continue careers in the hospitality industry. 

She said her son Qwan, and his fiance, Megan, are already the face of Farmers Home on the weekends, when the kitchen remains open far into the evening hours with a limited menu.

Bussey said she also plans to continue, and perhaps grow, the meals program.

“Why wouldn’t you?” she said. “I’d like to see other restaurants across the area start doing those. It’s helping the community.”

Located at 527 Field St., Farmers Home Restaurant opens at 8 a.m. daily, except Mondays, when the doors remain closed.

Serving is until 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursdays, 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

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