Talladega County resident Charlotte Smith drove all the way to Anniston Saturday morning to stand in line at 8:30 a.m. for a plastic foam plate full of pancakes. Her friend Lori Goss came from Gadsden to stand in line behind her at the City Meeting Center.
Both admitted they weren’t really here for pancakes.
“It’s a chance to see people you haven’t talked to in a long time,” Smith said.
Smith and Goss were among hundreds of people who filled the main room at the center at the peak of the yearly Kiwanis Pancake Day, one of the city’s most popular charity fundraisers. Volunteers rose before dawn to bake thousands of flapjacks. Local residents filled tables throughout the center’s main auditorium, where dozens of paid advertising banners hung overhead. High-school-age volunteers in Kiwanis blue led customers to the serving line, where more young volunteers handed out the ’cakes and sausage.
For decades, this light-and-fluffy event has seemed to defy gravity. When it was launched in the mid-1980s, the idea of a small-town pancake breakfast already had an old-school, Lake Wobegon feel. Since then, portion sizes at restaurants have grown. The city’s population has shrunk. The Internet has replaced or destroyed much of the back-slapping camaraderie people once got from meetings in the public square.
But the pancake breakfast kept growing.
“We usually serve at least 3,000 people,” said organizer Bill Hagler. “You can multiply that by two sausages and three pancakes per plate, and you’ll see it’s a lot of work.”
This year, however, Hagler and other organizers are bracing for a rare setback. Kiwanis organizers didn’t have a crowd estimate at the end of the event Saturday, but Hagler said the 2019 crowd may be smaller than usual.
The Kiwanis event is usually held on the first week in March. Due to a scheduling mix-up, Hagler said, another organization got the meeting center that weekend. (Hagler didn’t name the organization, but comics-and-cosplay convention Annicon brought thousands to the center March 2.)
Kiwanis organizers moved the date, but the new date fell after daylight saving time forced people to turn their clocks forward. (Hagler said there are always some customers who show up at 6 a.m., but their numbers dwindle when a 6 a.m. showtime means arriving in the dark.) And spring break, happening this week in some local school systems, mean some people might have already left town.
“We’re going to be sure to reserve it a year in advance,” Hagler said of future events.
By midmorning, there was, nonetheless, little sign of a decline in interest. The meeting center’s parking lot was full, with cars idling in the lot as drivers waited for spaces to come open. By 10 a.m., it was possible to find a space, but it took some looking.
A 10 a.m. breakfast may be late for some. But people in the crowd said the food was really a sideshow.
“I’ve been coming here for 25 years,” said Anniston resident Bobby Foster. “It’s a chance to see people you don’t see very often.”
Hagler said the event typically draws in $50,000 or more to buy school supplies for local kids who can’t afford them. It’s the only fundraising event the Kiwanians hold, so the stakes are high. Fewer pancake-eaters could mean fewer kids getting help, though Hagler notes that donors sometimes step in and add to the day’s take.
Even so, organizers don’t waste time with syrupy appeals to help the children. The main selling point is the event itself.
“It unites our city,” he said. “You may eat at a table with strangers, but when you leave, they’re not strangers anymore.”