The meetings became regular, and as friendships blossomed, the unorganized collection of friends became an informal club — and something of a surrogate family.
“My daughter named the club the ROMEO club,” said Ed Hughes, one of the members. “Retired Old Men Eating Out.”
The club now meets just about every morning at Hardee’s, typically starting at around 7:30 a.m.
Composed of several dozen members in their 60s through early 90s, members of the ROMEO club encompass multiple backgrounds, including retired principals, bankers coaches, undertakers, preachers, mechanics and veterans of Vietnam and World War II.
On Saturday, members of the club participated in a yearly picnic at Sinking Creek Baptist Church on the Elizabethton Highway. They cooked hot dogs and hamburgers, ate cole slaw and potato salad and relaxed under a shelter at the church.
“We’ve got Republicans like no other, and we’ve got Democrats like no other,” said Tony Farrace, another member of the club. “It’s a constant argument every morning.”
Farrace, who moved to the U.S. from Italy when he was a kid, used to be a coach at Science Hill High School.
He and one of his friends made frequent trips to another restaurant in the area during their morning walks.
He said that restaurant “always had dirty floors,” Farrace said. “Our feet stuck to the floor, so we decided we had to change.”
The eatery the pair switched to happened to be the one the ROMEO club frequented. They were welcomed to the group with open arms.
“I tell you, (they’re) some of the finest young men,” Farrace joked.
“I’m glad you said ‘young,’ ” one of his friends chimed in.
The topic of conversation at the club’s meetings varies.
“We talk about church stuff,” said Glenda Sams, another member of the group. “We talk about who’s sick, who’s feeling good, who’s in the hospital, who’s getting married, who’s going to the beach. ... We read the obituaries to find who’s still with us.”
“We throw paper wads at each other,” another member interjected.
“Family” was a common theme many of the club members returned to.
“The fact that you can ask anything of them and they’ll do it for you — that means a lot,” Farrace said. “I feel probably more comfortable in here than a heck of a lot of other people. You can talk to them.”
Ed Hughes’ wife recently died, and the support offered by the group afterward was instrumental.
“They’ll do anything for you if you need them,” Hughes said. “You don’t find that anymore.”