The Nicest Place in Illinois: Collinsville

"Free Lunch Is Real"


A local barbecue joint gets the whole town to participate in kindness.

At first, Melissa Gilmore’s husband and business partner wasn’t so sure about all this free lunch business.

“‘Where are we going to get the money to do that?’” Gilmore recalls him saying. “And I said, ‘God is gonna find a way.’”

Larry Gilmore still had doubts, but he rolled with his wife’s plan anyway—and it worked. The Gilmores stepped up, the community responded, and that’s how their restaurant, the Red Top Barbecue & Chili, ended up feeding hundreds of neighbors in the hardworking city of Collinsville.

“Juice, food, hot dogs—the community really helped out,” says Gilmore. “We had one guy, an elderly gentleman, he came every week with a truckload of snacks. He said the government had given him that $1,200 stimulus check, and he didn’t know what to do with it, so he figured he’d spend it on us.”

Gilmore and her husband go way back in Collinsville, a city of 25,000 near St. Louis that holds the honor of being the home of the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle. She’s a bus operator for the city transit system, as was Larry until he retired. It’s never an easy job, and the coronavirus has only made it harder, she says. One of Gilmore’s new duties was to enforce social distancing rules on the bus, and not everyone wanted to play along.

larget catsup bottleDenise Panyik-Dale/Getty Images
A local monument that would pair well with the free kids meals the the Gilmores are serving.

“I purchased some masks, and I always take a few with me. I don’t want to argue with anybody,” she says. “Take a mask or get off the bus!”

But if Gilmore’s job occasionally requires her to get tough with a passenger, it also shows her clearly what the community is going through. COVID-19 hit this middle-class city hard, she says, putting many residents out of work, and closing the schools on which thousands of Collinsville’s children rely for meals.

So, the Gilmores decided to start their own free lunch program to fill the gap. Soon the Red Top was dishing up hundreds of kid-friendly meals: cheeseburgers, hot dogs, spaghetti and meatballs. Their Facebook page filled with gratitude:

“Kids are loving the burgers!”

“Thank you for all you do!”

“Your generosity isn’t going unnoticed nor unappreciated! Thank you!”

And it wasn’t just kids coming through. Whole families would arrive, sometimes taking extra meals home to shut-in relatives. Gilmore had always known there was a lot of need around, but the demand for the Red Top’s meals surprised even her.

“I remember one woman came in and said, ‘If it wasn’t for you guys, I don’t know what I would have done. If I don’t get that free lunch, my kids only get one meal a day,’” Gilmore says.

But if the need was profound, so too was the support. On their first day, the Gilmores spent a few hundred dollars and fed about 75 kids. By the time they stopped in June, they were feeding up to 250 people a day, and had raised well over $7,000 in donations from the community.

Cash came from all sorts of places, including two locals known as the “GJ Slime Sisters,” students at the nearby Maryville Christian School, who raised money for the Red Top by selling home-made “slime” made of white glue, saline solution, baking soda and food coloring at their online store. The sisters, Jacqueline and Gabrielle, told a local YouTube program called the Kindness Cup (a new good news show run by children) that they’d been looking for a way help support the community’s COVID response, and that the Red Top’s quality food cinched the deal.

“We had driven by a few times, and we saw they were giving out meals, so we decided to look into it,” one sister told the Kindness Cup. “They’re like, real good meals. They’re not just peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So we decided to help them.”

The Slime Sisters’ donation was a particular surprise to Gilmore. “I was so excited,” she says, adding, “I just wish I could meet them.”

Among the things she noticed: the GJ Slime Sisters are White, but didn’t hesitate to support a Black-owned business like the Red Top. That’s encouraging to Gilmore, as was all the support she heard from her many White customers as protests in response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody swept across America.

“We had a couple of elderly people who came in and apologized for police treatment. The one guy was crying! I said, ‘It’s okay, it wasn’t you,’” Gilmore says.

The Nomination

There is a young 6th grade girl who has gone out her way to make the best of the pandemic. She created a Facebook page and YouTube channel where she shares stories of acts of kindness in her community. She writes, the scripts, researches the stories and interviews the guests who share their acts. It is heartwarming and encouraging.

I do believe this is a kindness motivated community to begin with. I think by reading some of the comments on the FB page you will see this little girl has inspired greater kindness and appreciation from it’s visitors.