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Customers huddle over games, grub
B-i-n-g-o: A winning concept
General Manager Matt Leonard checks Shari Sproul's winning ticket. - photo by Jennifer Sami
Betty and James Williamson have never missed a game.

They’ve also never won a game. But for them, bingo at the Huddle House in Cumming isn’t about the prizes.

“It’s just fun,” Betty Williamson said. “There’s a lot of nice people that come here.”

About 50 people were there on a recent Monday night, packing the restaurant’s parking lot and taking up just about every seat in the house.

“It’s like a ritual with them. They just can’t wait to get here,” said Sandy Sneider, Huddle House employee and bingo caller. “We pretty much have a set crowd. You know you’re going to see at least 60 percent of the same people every Monday.”

Weekly events are not a new concept. From trivia night at a tavern and chess at a bookstore to book groups at a coffee shop, many local merchants offer a variety of events.

Huddle House began offering Monday night bingo in April, said Sneider, who floated the idea.

Players start trickling in for the 7 p.m. games as early as 4:30 p.m. to reserve their space and eat dinner with enough time to clear plates and make room for bingo cards.

Sara Buice usually orders the rib-eye steak, but occasionally switches to the T-bone. She drives from Buford to meet her friend Sue Irby for bingo night.

“It’s what’s got me out and going around,” she said. “We pretty much know everybody here ... I like the people here and I love bingo.”

Helen Combs and her sister, Virginia Tilley, play bingo together every week, occasionally inviting friends and neighbors to join in.

“We’ve been playing for a long time,” Combs said. “About the time they started playing bingo, we started playing with them. It’s fun.”

To Tilley, it’s “something different.”

“There’s some nice people here,” she said. “Prizes are good, but it’s the camaraderie around here ... just getting out and meeting new people, laughing and having a good time.”

When Sneider calls a game, the restaurant is quiet enough to hear a pin — or a ball — drop from the cage.

The Huddle House games stretch beyond the straight line patterns of traditional bingo. They include “postage stamps,” or squares of four numbers, and the “Huddle House waffle,” which resembles a checkers board.

The restaurant-themed prizes include everything from gift certificates to a steak dinner or piece of pie.

There are many customer requests for a certain number to be called, and an orchestra of “boos,” “aws” and “nos” whenever someone shouts “bingo.”

And the jokes and laughter are constant.

“I just got one postage stamp. Can I just get half a pie?” shouted one player during a game requiring two postage stamps.

“I’m already in the doghouse,” joked one player.

“Then you’ll be under it,” replied another.

General manager Matt Leonard said bingo night originated as a way to generate business on the slowest night of the week. And sales on Mondays have tripled since April.

“But quite honestly, it’s turned into a fellowship and community bonding thing,” he said. “Huddle House has always been your small family restaurant, and in smaller towns you have to be involved in the community.”

Leonard knows more than 100 customers by name.

“And for some reason, when they come in, they want to get to know you and tell you their story,” he said.

“Homer, he goes by several nicknames. I don’t know how long he’s been in town, but a lot of people know him. He makes windmills. He can custom make you a windmill. Everybody’s got a unique story to tell.”

Homer Long and wife Myrtice are regulars on bingo night. The two often help Sneider set up for the games, and have also brought along their daughter and son-in-law to join in the fun.

Long has been coming to bingo night since the beginning, but there was a two-week span when he didn’t show up.

“I asked around until I got his phone number and called him at home,” Sneider said. “When somebody don’t come for a couple of weeks, we call and find out if everything’s OK. I worry about them. They’re like my family.”

The local Huddle House serves as a national training store. Managers and staff travel from across the country to prep at the Cumming eatery, and training is not complete until they’ve worked a bingo night, Leonard said.

In addition to bingo, the restaurant holds “Grits and Gospel,” an open stage for gospel performers to practice and entertain, from 4 to 6 p.m. every Saturday.

“It’s growing slowly, but there’s a devoted base of people that come every week,” said Leonard, adding that the events just add to the lore of Huddle House.

“What’s so unique about this place is you can come in and get breakfast and bump into a buddy you haven’t seen in 10 years,” he said. “You can come in and get into a political conversation about city hall ... you hear all the time stories about how, ‘I used to eat here when I was a kid.’

“From the mayor down to the dogcatcher — lots of people eat here.”