The people of Juniper Island weren’t poor.
They had access to some of the best eating establishments; places sought out by elite tourists every summer season. They didn’t need a restaurant that gave away free meals: rosemary biscuits with carnation petal jam to an ailing couple after the funeral for their son; a slice of strawberry and rhubarb pie to a nerdy teenager the night before her first boy-girl dance; a yam and turnip stew to the island’s only real estate agent, rumored to be the richest man on the island.
While the locals had everything they could possibly want, the new restaurant was not there to cater to desires. It served only what a customer needed and nothing more.
It was crazy to open a restaurant in the middle of winter; tourist season didn’t officially begin until after Memorial Day. The other restaurants on the island routinely shut down during the winter. They were sure the new restaurant would be out of business quickly.
The people of Juniper also knew a restaurant that gave away food wouldn’t remain a secret for long, because the restaurant in question wasn’t giving away free meals just to hopeless cases or friends or family members. Anyone hungry on the North Shore of the island ended up there, and they were never asked to pay a dime.
That didn’t mean people left without leaving something behind. The real estate agent wrote a check to the children’s hospital and left it under his napkin. The teenager, a mood-stone ring, strangely permanently affixed to an aqua blue. The grieving couple left a family photograph on the hostess booth.
The items left behind often ended up elsewhere. The children’s hospital got the check. The photo attached itself to the altar of the island’s only church, the place where the boy had been Christened. The ring appeared on the finger of a boy, blushing after his first kiss with a girl he met at a school dance. In any case, the owner never kept any of the items left behind.
There were rumors that the owner of the restaurant was not from Juniper Island. Everyone knew who he was, but no one really knew what he looked like. No one recalled him ever leaving the kitchen, and as far as they could tell, he was the only one who cooked the food. The few who said they caught glimpses of him through the swinging kitchen door said that he was as old as dirt, and others said he was barely out of his twenties.
Whispers of how the owner managed to stay in business ranged from old money inherited from family, to international drug cartel hiding from tax collectors. The theory of his origin changed based on the cuisine served. Some said Chinese, some said old world European, some suggested South American, Russian, African. The rumors of food and looks and even magic passed the lips of the residents like wildfire.
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