He pulled the tip of his hat further down, casting a tiny barrier from making eye contact with the approaching stranger.
His heart pounded as the worst-case scenarios ran through his head. The stranger was now standing directly in front of him. He cleared his throat. Lou had no choice but to acknowledge him. It was an encounter that would drive him to tears.
74-year-old Lou Zezoff was looking forward to the date night at Cracker Barrel with his wife, Annette.
Tonight, he would go wild with a medium-rare steak and loaded potatoes, maybe even a big brownie for dessert. He had no idea what would be waiting for him just a few tables over.
A quiet life in Granite City, Illinois was the perfect retirement after a lifetime of dangerous, stressful, service jobs. But being a Vietnam veteran had left him in a constant state of vigilance.
Being a police officer and detective in the post-war years only added to the hyper-attentiveness. It all started with a glance.
Lou wanted nothing more than to admire how nice his wife’s hair had turned out for date night, or the way she smiled at the service staff.
However, a couple of tables over, a table full of muscled young men ended up vying for his attention. There was just one problem.
Lou wasn’t a young man anymore. If there was trouble coming, he wouldn’t be able to do much besides dial 911, and he hated that.
The group of guys looked like they could snap him, or anyone, in half without blinking an eye. It ended up a battle of side glances and whispers as he tried to order appetizers.
It became obvious to him, and quickly to his wife, that they were being watched.
They were too young to be someone he had arrested back in the day. Maybe kids of some guys he had put behind the slammer? It didn’t take long for the staff to also notice something was off.
Something, however, nagged at the back of Lou’s brain. It was their hair.
By the time his steak arrived steaming and juicy on the table, he had already formed a solid hypothesis. But just when he thought he could relax, he spotted one of the guys whispering to a waitress while glancing over at Lou.
Whatever he said, made the waitress’s eyes go wide.
Annette reached over and patted his hand, trying to calm his hardened reactions to unknown situations. She was curious, but not nearly as fixated as him. Suddenly, one of them stood and walked over. Lou’s heart pounded wildly.
He was the tallest of the bunch, clean shaven and a sharp, precise haircut.
He walked with authority and determination. Lou also noticed the harsh glint in his eyes. This was a man who had seen and done some horrible things. He knew that look all too well.
The man stopped in front of Lou and extended his hand.
“I saw your hat, sir. My fellow officers and I just wanted to thank you for your service to this country.” The paranoia and wild imagined situations melted away. Lou thought he could relax, but the scene was just starting.
The others stood up and came over as well. Lou might have been an old soldier, but he could still blush.
They all thanked him over and over for his years in the military. They shared a few, brief stories of their own service and struggles. Then they handed him the dinner bill.
It had been paid for. Lou felt the tears well up and trickle down his cheeks. He knew better than most that solider didn’t get paid much.
This was a lot for the boys to give out. He tried to insist they didn’t have to, but their response made him cry harder.
The five men stood in a line and gave him the sharpest, crispest salute he had ever seen in his life.
The rest of the restaurant had been watching the scene unfold … and then joined in. They clapped, cheered, and thanked him as well. It felt like his heart was going to explode.
Lou knew that when men and women who came home from service didn’t always get a happy ending.
There were physical and mental barriers that were sometimes impossible to overcome. He had been lucky. Now, looking at the newest generation, he was sure of one thing.
The comradery within the military didn’t just span across countries, it had bridged generations as well.
They were all brothers and sisters in arms. It was a special bond that he was forever grateful for. Somehow, he was going to pay this forward. But this was not the first time someone was blown away by an amazing display of patriotism…
She couldn’t believe that the hostess was lying to her. She had been waiting for what seemed like an age just to get a table, and her kids were starting to grow restless. And when she saw through the lie her server had told her, she was livid.
She sighed. The children were growing hungrier and more irritable by the second. Any minute now, she knew all hell was about to break loose. She flagged a passing waitress, but before she could open her mouth to speak, Maddi, her youngest, began to shriek.
Kate Bradford, a single mother of two, was no stranger to the difficulties of finding a family-friendly restaurant. But at last, she had found the perfect diner.
Tonight was her father’s birthday and they had wanted to celebrate with a steak dinner, so she made a reservation for a booth at 6 PM at the Texas Roadhouse, just a few blocks from her home. What could possibly go wrong?
Kate, as any mother of young children would, was experiencing immense anxiety over the impending restaurant trip.
She had read the horror stories written by mothers and the venom spewed by childless diners in blogs and reviews, but she had the foresight to prepare for any eventuality in advance. Or so she thought.
Armed with a diaper bag, crayons, puzzles, toys, and other distractions, Kate arrived at the Texas Roadhouse with trepidation–3 and 6-year-old in tow.
They were 15 minutes early but were hoping to be seated immediately. The diner didn’t look too busy, Kate noted with relief. Cole and Maddi were already growing restless, and Kate was already starting to regret her decision.
The hostess greeted them with a smile, but when she saw the two small children she frowned. Kate’s nerves were raw with tension and she was waiting for the worst–a snide comment, a judging look, anything…and she was ready to retaliate.
They had just as much right to be here as anybody else, she kept telling herself. “We have a reservation,” Kate said, cracking a smile.
The hostess looked her name up in the book and guided them to the waiting area and apologized, saying that they were a little early and would have to wait for a table to become available. “Fair enough,” Kate said in dismay as Cole started to clench his fists.
“I’m hungry, mommy!” he whined. “We can’t eat without Grandpa anyway, honey,” she reasoned gently.
The bar area was packed with men that night, and there was a big game on TV. Kate lifted Cole and then Maddi onto the high bar stools at a table in the corner, as far away from the noise as possible.
She hoped they wouldn’t have to wait long. Cole swung his legs repeatedly, kicking the table with his sneakers. Ten minutes of waiting turned into fifteen, and Kate was about to lose her patience.
Kate scanned the faces jostling through the crowded bar. Her father, Joel, was late. She picked up her phone and dialed his number, but there was no answer, and she started to worry. Cole and Maddi held their birthday gifts, and Cole started to fidget.
Then, he looked up and stated matter-of-factly that he needed to use the bathroom. But when Kate accompanied him to the restroom, it became all too clear that the hostess had lied to her.
There were diners in all the booths, except one, in the far corner. At first, Kate thought that there must have been some kind of mistake, but then she started to fume.
Why wouldn’t the roadhouse let them have the booth? They advertised themselves as a family restaurant when they clearly weren’t. That’s when Kate snapped the picture that took Facebook by storm.
Turning to the nearest waitress, she asked why they had been waiting for all this time when there was a booth available. But just then Maddi started to have a toddler meltdown of epic proportions.
She stamped her feet and started to shriek, and Kate had finally had enough.
“There is an empty booth! I’ll show you!” Kate snapped. This wasn’t the first time she had endured terrible service because she had disruptive children, but this was really just too much.
She got up and started to lead the confused server to the dining area, and pointed triumphantly. “Right there, in the corner!”
The waitress stammered, bewildered, plates of steaming food sat poised on her arms. Kate had blindsided her with her confrontation.
She was just doing her job. She started to explain, but as Kate drew closer, she felt her smug face fall as she realized her terrible mistake. The table was unoccupied, but it wasn’t empty.
The table had been reserved for some VIP guests. At first, Kate was confused–was there some sort of conspiracy going on here?
Places had been set, it seemed, but the guests hadn’t arrived. She was right to be annoyed, It was reserved for ghosts. But then, Kate’s stomach started to turn as she took it all in. It was a lonely table.
At that moment, Kate wished that the ground would open up and swallow her. Here she was, complaining, while she sat and waited for a table so she could have a steak dinner with her family.
The gravity of the situation hit home as she understood how lucky she was…her problems were small. Something terrible had happened to these men who were supposed to be in that booth tonight.
The table was neatly set for five, and there was a vase in the middle of the table that held a miniature American Flag. There was also a full-sized flag hanging on the wall, lit by a single candle. It was an eerily forlorn sight, and Kate’s heart filled with sadness when she realized what it all meant.
There was a letter, typed and framed upright, and when Kate read the words, her heart broke.
Kate’s eyes filled with tears as she realized that the party of five who the table had been meticulously set for was not going to walk into the doors of the Texas Roadhouse anytime soon.
Her face flushed with shame, and she knew that this particular group of men was never going to be able to enjoy the diner’s trademark ribeye steak, ever again.
The framed text read: “We remember and honor the five slain police officers, Sergeant Michael J. Smith, Officer Michael Krol, Officer Patrick Zamarripa, Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens, and Mr. Brent Thompson, who worked for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police Department, that the Texas Roadhouse restaurant reserved a table for.”
“…We thank you for your service. May you rest in peace.”
Kate’s father, Joel, arrived and found Kate standing motionless at the memorial table. Cole and Maddi were also quiet for once, as if somehow understanding the somber tone of their mother’s discovery.
Joel apologized to his daughter for being late, and just then a waitress walked up with a smile.
“Bradford? Party of four? Your booth is ready.” At their freshly cleared table, Kate sat in silence as she thought about what she had just seen. She knew in the back of her mind that there had been some sort of tragedy, but she hadn’t been paying attention.
Then she turned to her father and asked: “Who are the Dallas 5?”
The table had been set for the “Dallas 5”, 5 brave police officers who had died while in the line of duty. The incident was deemed the most deadly for law enforcement since 9/11.
The tragedy occurred on July 7, 2016. A man named Micah Xavier Johnson had ambushed and fired upon a group of police officers in Dallas, Texas.
Micah Xavier Johnson killed five officers and injured nine others. Two civilians were also wounded. Johnson was an Army Reserve Afghan War veteran who was outraged over police shootings, and this drove him to commit the atrocity.
But there was one restaurant that was not going to let these policemen’s brave efforts go unnoticed.
The Texas Roadhouse, In addition to the heartbreaking tribute table, donated 5% of all sales on that memorable day to the Assist the Officer Foundation (run by the Dallas Police Association).
This organization provides assistance to officers and their families in the event of illness, accidents, and other events that lead to loss of income. But it’s not the first table of honor the restaurant chain has laid.
In fact, the family restaurant chain has made an impression on many of its diners with similar tribute tables.
Kate’s photos, as well as others, have been circulating on social media, and thousands have commended the touching gesture with positive comments.
One Facebook user wrote: “…I’ve even seen Wounded Warrior reserved parking spaces at the restaurant in Altoona, PA.”
“They are by far my favorite restaurant, not just for the great food, but the patriotism and professionalism they constantly show!”
It’s easy to take things for granted in life, like being able to enjoy a night out with loved ones while eating a delicious meal. Sometimes we forget just how much dedicated public servants do to protect America’s citizens, and how much they risk each and every day–putting their lives on the line.
Texas Roadhouse’s beautiful tributes remind us to stop and say “thank you”.