Franklin Department Flips Final Pancakes
By Ruthie Laroche
For the County Courier
Sunday, March 11th, the Franklin Volunteer Fire Department and their families will host the 24th and final Franklin Fire Department Pancake Breakfast.
The department has been hosting the breakfast since 1993, and in that time they have fed thousands of people and raised over $250,000.
Marshall Ploof, Mark Racine, and Scott Choiniere, members of the Franklin Fire Department shared some of their memories of the event that has become a staple in Franklin County and beyond.
"It's really an all-weather event," said Ploof, all the others nodding agreement as he spoke.
"We've had a lot of big snowfalls on the day of the breakfast, and I think that just makes people come out more!" said Choiniere.
The group recounted the 2010 breakfast held during a snowstorm that left the town of Franklin and many others in the county without power.
Racine remembers calling the local radio station three times that morning to let them know the breakfast was still on.
"The DJ got on the radio and made sure that everyone knew that if they were out of power and wanted a warm breakfast, the Franklin Fire Department was still having their breakfast. And we did!" said Racine, "We fed over 1759 people that year."
"It was one of our biggest turnouts," said Ploof.
"Our biggest crisis that morning was that we were worried the generator would run out of fuel," said Choiniere.
Racine remembers that long night; he was busy keeping his furnace running and making sure things were okay at the school.
"Most of us were up all night. We pumped water out of basements and kept an eye on the town," said Racine.
Over the years the breakfast has become a gathering place for celebrations.
"We've had family reunions and birthday parties here. People look forward to this," said Ploof.
Racine is sure there are some folks who haven't missed a breakfast.
"I remember one older gentleman telling me he had just attended his sixteenth breakfast. 'I missed one of them during that time, but that's because I was in the hospital' he said, 'but I've made every other one,'" quoted Racine.
In a typical year, the department will cook over 2000 pancakes, 400 pounds of bacon, 180 pounds of sausage links, 1700 cinnamon rolls, 480 pounds of ham, 40 pounds of beans for the baked beans, and 240 dozen eggs--all cracked by hand.
"We have an egg cracking party," said Ploof, "There will be five or six of us cracking eggs for half a day."
Many times Dresser Hill Farm has donated eggs for the breakfast, which is a tremendous help.
Choiniere thanked the local farmers and sugarmakers who donate maple syrup for the breakfast.
The milk, Cabot cheese, and Cabot yogurt for the event are donated by the Franklin County Dairy Promotion Board.
Choiniere, a graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, makes the baked beans himself; he used to do the same with the potatoes.
"I like to make things from scratch, and I like to make things the best as possible. My first year I hand cut all the potatoes, added all the spices, especially the fancy rosemary, but our guys are Vermonters," said Choiniere to a chorus of laughter.
"We like our potatoes with no sticks and pine needles in them," said Racine to a chorus of laughter.
"We took the 'pine needles' out," said Choiniere with a chuckle, "Now I buy the potatoes already diced."
Over the years many people have come from long distances to enjoy the delicious feast. Racine remembers one couple in particular.
"I was talking with a couple who came from the Bennington or Brattleboro area," said Racine, "they came up and spent the night in St. Albans so they could get to the breakfast the next morning."
The group noted that the memorable things tend to spring from problems the department has had to solve over the years.
"The breakfast is held on the weekend that we change our clocks," said Ploof with a chuckle, "some of the boys forget to change their clocks, and they come in an hour late. They never live that down. Never. Not for the rest of their lives. We don't forget anything here."
The most memorable breakfast for Ploof was the year that they set the record for the most customers served.
"The line went all the way down the hallway of the school, all the way back up the hallway and all the way to the bike rack outdoors," said Racine.
"Behind the scenes got really chaotic that year as we tried to keep up," said Ploof.
The department served 2088 that year, which meant 500 people were going through the line per hour.
"The kitchen in the school is made to feed one hundred people per day. Scott figured out a way to feed 500 people in an hour," said Racine.
"We were cleaning tables like crazy and not trying to push people--well, we were trying to push them because we had such a long line," said Ploof, laughing, "we had to keep everybody moving."
All of the members extended a heartfelt thank you to the Abbey Restaurant Group and Scott Choiniere, the executive vice president at the Abbey Restaurant Group, who is also an incredible cook.
"We want to thank the Abbey Restaurant Group. Without the Abbey and Scott's help, we would never have been able to do this. They have helped us source so much product, and that's helped tremendously with the profit," said Racine.
The Abbey Restaurant Group generously donated all of the equipment used to prepare, cook, and serve the breakfast for several years. They made sure the department had everything from chafing dishes, food service pans, serving spoons, tongs, tables, and even tablecloths.
Over the years the fire department bought equipment to become self-sufficient. The firemen and their families donated all of the griddles that were used for more than a decade.
The department also thanked Dick Wright Ford for the part the dealership played in one of the breakfast milestones.
"As an incentive to increase our numbers from 1,000 to our goal of 2,000, we worked with Dick Wright Ford to try and give away a car. This brought in the additional 1,000 customers we needed to reach our goal," said Choiniere.
Another local business, the Franklin General Store, has been a tremendous help to the firefighters, giving them space to store the overflow of refrigerated items that won’t fit in the school.
Choiniere also took his turn to talk about how impressive the event is.
"We've got a bus driver, a salesperson; I'm in foodservice, we've got a carpenter, a plumber, an electrician, an auto mechanic, and a farmer--all these people come together. We get it done with people who don't do this for a living," said Choiniere, the only food professional in the group.
The breakfast has been going on long enough that Mark Racine, who was there in the beginning, has had the opportunity to train his daughter Nora as a firefighter and a breakfast helper.
"Mark has trained his daughter how to make coffee for the breakfast," said Choiniere.
Days and weeks are spent ordering food, displaying signs, laying the electrical plan for the cooking and heating devices--all which must be done before the weekend of the breakfast.
In a town like Franklin, no one works alone.
"We would be lost without the help of our spouses," said Ploof, "It's a whole family event. Our kids come and help."
Racine noted that the National Honor Society from MVU even comes out to help with the event.
If the Franklin Central School had not been keen on hosting the breakfast, it would never have been successful.
Choiniere pointed out that the fire department has been eager to repay the school for the use of the building.
"We've purchased fifty percent of a brand new oven for the school, helped pay for extra tables and chairs. We couldn't do it without the school, but we have given back to the community. Everybody has been able to benefit from the purchases we've made--town meeting day, school plays, and the Senior Dinner," said Choiniere.
The county hasn't taken the cessation of the breakfast lightly, according to Racine.
"I've been hearing from people that don't even know I'm on the fire department who are upset that we're going to be done," said Racine, "but honestly, we've lasted longer than we thought we would."
The first breakfast the department served fed 98 people in the Franklin Central School cafeteria.
"What we did in the first year became what we now do in the first fifteen minutes at our peak," said Racine, "and that's part of the reason why we decided to stop. It's too much, and we just can't sustain that much work."
The volunteers begin preparing food for the breakfast on Friday evening, they work at least an additional 14 hours on Saturday, and then spend 12-14 hours at the school on Sunday, the day of the breakfast.
Ploof and the crew start up the kitchen at 4:00 on Sunday morning.
"With the time change, that means we are all up at 3 am by the old time. We're getting up at 2:30 or 3 to make sure to get everything ready," said Choiniere, "People are usually waiting at 6:00 to get into the breakfast."
The decision to discontinue the breakfast was made by the entire department.
"We need to spend more time working on projects that are geared to firefighting," said Racine, "we will still do community stuff, just not something that's this big."
"When you spend all your time fundraising, you don't really train the way you should as a fire department," said Ploof.
"We have found that we aren't doing the training we'd like to do, so we are stepping back and reassessing," said Ploof.
"The equipment has changed a lot," said Ploof, "I've been doing this for a long time--since I was a boy. There's so much to learn about the new equipment. The more you train, the more you're used to it, and things just happen more naturally."
Training is a key reason for the shift, but other things have also changed in the makeup of the town.
"We have a great group of firemen and women in our department," said Ploof, "we work together well, but things have changed over the years. People want to spend more time with their families, and all of these fire department events take a lot of time."
Racine and the Franklin Fire Department extended a request to local folks who might be interested in joining the crew or in participating in any aspect of their community.
"Anybody reading this article who's younger, has time, has any interest in volunteering for anything, not just the fire department--volunteer in your community! There aren't enough volunteers," said Racine.
Ploof, who's been with the Franklin Volunteer Fire Department for decades, would love to see more people volunteer at the fire department.
"We do need volunteers in the department. We could use some more fire personnel," said Ploof, "Society is changing, and people aren't volunteering like they used to."
All good things do come to an end, and the core group who started this incredible event 24 years ago isn't afraid to say that they are getting older.
"I told them twenty years ago that I was struggling to keep up with them. I told them to wait another twenty years and see how it hits you," said Ploof, "There are fewer people and more responsibility."
Each of the firefighters wanted to let the county know that the decision was not an easy one.
"We labored for two months about this. We work together, and we vote together. We went back and forth. A lot of guys loved the tradition, that was in our heart, but when we looked at it realistically, it's grown too large to make sure no one gets burned out," said Ploof.
Ploof and the fire department were filled with gratitude for the overwhelming support of the community, the county, the state, and even neighboring Canada.
"We have our county firefighting organization that even includes departments in Canada. We get a big turnout from Canada. We have so many connections we've made through the fire department. The guys from North Hyde Park come every year. We have a guy who comes up every year from the Hartford Fire Department to support us. They say it's the best breakfast around," said Ploof, "People love it, and I don't blame them."
The breakfast will be held the Sunday after town meeting, just as the first one was held, thanks to the suggestion of a community member over two decades ago.
That community member, who wrote for a local paper knew Franklin residents and others from around Franklin County would be looking in the newspapers for the results of Town Meeting and would see the ads for the breakfast in the paper.
Thankfully, Racine noted, there has never been a fire in town on the day of the breakfast.
"We've gone this long," said Ploof, recounting that there was a fire call during the annual chicken barbecue.
"Other towns are on call when we have these events, and we do have a skeleton crew who can go," said Ploof, "We're still in the business of putting out fires."
The Franklin Fire Department is ready for record crowds this year, and they are looking forward to seeing both old and new faces as they celebrate their final year.