Billy and Lorena Smith
Between the ages of about 18 to 20, Billy Smith was a Deadhead. While following the Grateful Dead from show to show, he’d sell grilled cheese sandwiches at the concerts.
Although he couldn’t oblige those who wanted his food for free, he promised himself that one day he would give away his sandwiches.
“It’s such a simple item that pretty much everybody loves,” Smith said.
Now, Smith and his wife Lorena—Lancaster residents who have been married 20 years—have made Billy’s dream a reality.
In an initiative billed Operation FreeChee, the couple takes a food trailer designed specifically to produce high volumes of grilled cheese and tomato soup and travels across the country to help those facing disasters or other types of hardship.
The trailer, which cost about $75,000, can feed about 400 people per hour, Smith said. But being able to show a little bit of love is priceless.
“We can change their day with a simple meal, a smile and a hug,” he said.
Smith met his wife in 1998, he said. The couple had talked quite a bit about his dream of offering free grilled cheese to those in need, but for a long time, they didn’t have enough money to execute his plan.
Then the Smiths opened Cherry Street Pub in Lancaster in 2015. Once they were able to pay off their initial debt associated with the venture, they began saving for the food trailer.
Now proceeds from the pub go toward FreeChee. They also own a catering operation, the Smoked Food Factory on South Broad Street in Lancaster, and are partners with Brad Hutchinson in the Mill Event Center on South Columbus Street in Lancaster.
Last fall, the Smiths took their trailer on the road.
They drove to Florida to help people who were dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. They set up in Panama City, serving grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup to about 500 people per day, Lorena Smith said.
By the end of that week, they had provided more than 2,000 meals before running out of supplies. People were not shy about showing their gratitude.
Smith said she remembered grown men would begin to cry after being served food.
“We’ll go anywhere we make people smile; that’s really what it’s about,” Billy Smith said.
In June, the Smiths traveled to the Dayton area when tornadoes hit the area.
When not providing comfort food to those experiencing disasters or hardships, the Smiths have taken the FreeChee trailer to schools, homeless shelters, mental illness shelters and United Way events.
In addition, Lorena Smith said, they visited Walnut Ridge High School on East Livingston Avenue in Columbus to give soup and grilled cheese to students taking the SAT.
The FreeChee trailer ended up visiting nearby middle and elementary schools as well.
Billy Smith said he hopes FreeChee picks up more momentum, perhaps even funding from larger food companies to help pay for additional trailers.
Hannah Saunders, who works for Lancaster-based Krile Communications, assists the Smiths with marketing efforts for FreeChee.
The Smiths are “genuinely just great people,” Saunders said, adding that the couple lifts up people during tough times. They care about their own community and others’ communities as well, she said.
“They go where they’re needed,” she said.