LAKE COUNTY, Fla. – Along State Road 19 in Umatilla, the American dream comes served with hash browns.
When Bruce and Beth Chambers opened Combat Café, they had no idea it would become a destination.
“It’s crazy, it’s kind of taken on a life of it’s own,” Bruce Chambers said, reflecting on the diner’s popularity.
The military-themed restaurant is attracting veterans from across Central Florida. Many come in for the food, others the décor, but most will tell you, it’s the feeling of belonging that keeps them coming back.
The couple works side by side in the kitchen and over the grill. Together, they turn out all the morning’s omelets, pancakes and breakfast burritos.
“Our tag line is, ‘Every revolution begins with breakfast, and this is us,” Beth Chambers said. “A little revolution.”
Bruce Chambers said he served in the Army and was stationed in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After returning home he worked multiple jobs but found comfort working in the kitchen of a local diner.
“I was not heading in the right direction,” Bruce Chambers said. “I was shutting myself away in the kitchen when I got out of Iraq. I didn’t talk to anyone about a lot of stuff; I just did my own thing.”
About that time, he met Beth, his future wife, and started therapy through the UCF Restores program.
“Total change up,” Bruce Chambers said. “The right people and the right support system. It’s huge.”
With a new outlook, Bruce Chambers said he began thinking of the future.
“I’m like, ‘Man, I wish I could own my own restaurant,’ and we passed by this location all the time, and I’m like, ‘That’s got to be my building,’” he said.
He said the two even wrote their names on the door of the vacant store, as a way to will their dreams into reality.
The couple eventually opened their first café at that location in Eustis, eventually moving to their current building in Umatilla. They called it Combat Café No. 2.
Inside, the café had posters and wall decorations with military themes. The 70′s TV show “M.A.S.H.” was playing on the television, and the menu featured items such as the Uncle Ham, The Grunt and The Grenaders.
“It’s all themed just for fun,” Beth Chambers said.
In the corner was a tribute to fallen soldiers: Greka’s Table and the Honor Room pay tribute to Bruce Chamber’s squadron leader, Sgt. Alan Greka, who lost his life in Iraq.
“He was an awesome leader,” Bruce Chambers said. “Greka stepped on an anti-personnel landmine on July 13, 2007.”
A regular at Combat Café, Graham Williamson, served in the Royal Navy from 1971 to 1986. Williamson is there once a week.
“Look around. It’s all about service. It’s all about giving,” Williamson said.
When it came to the restaurant’s décor, Williamson said there’s a certain spot that hits home.
“The table of remembrance — that means more to me than most of it,” he said.
Combat Café isn’t just about eating breakfast, Williamson said, but about community.
“I love it. I love the atmosphere,” he said, ordering his eggs over easy. “Coming here I found brotherhood, family.”
Williamson is not alone. Nearly every booth was occupied with a veteran and a story.
John McCrary is 93. The Navy SeaBee said he served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He’s at the café every day for his sausage biscuits and gravy with potatoes.
“Well, I’m Irish, you know. So, I never met a tater I didn’t like,” he said, laughing.
Across the dining room John Clark and Jaime Gonzalez finished up their meal. Clark served in the Air Force, Gonzalez in the Marines. The two drove over from Daytona.
“It’s special,” Gonzalez said. “It’s special to me and John. That’s why we keep coming back.”
Roger Sarver sat in the next booth with friends from the Villages.
“I would love to have millennials come here and hear the stories from this booth and that booth and that booth,” Sarver said, pointing around the room. “From real people.”
The diner is a regular stop for groups of bikers on weekend cruises.
Williamson said there’s something about the place that gives veterans the chance to open up about the past.
“Since I left the Navy there’s always been a part that is missing: the fellowship, the brotherhood, the family,” he said. “This is home. I come here and just sit with people who understand.”
Years ago, Bruce Chambers retreated behind the grill. Today, he said his own kitchen is a symbol of possibilities; his dining room, a refuge for others.
David Grant Williams is another regular.
“I believe this is a healing place,” Williams said. “I’ve seen it happen over and over again.”
Bruce Chambers said what matters most to him is providing a space for veterans where they can open up to one another comfortably and without reservations.
“What’s most important to me is there’s a lot of guys and girls going through a lot of different things,” he said. “And sometimes they don’t know how to get stuff off their chests, or they don’t know how to deal with certain things. I’ve seen a lot of guys and girls get a lot of stuff off their chests in here, and it’s huge for them.”
Bruce Chambers said he opens the business every morning, and it doesn’t feel like work.
“It’s just part of our mission,” he said. “I always say the food is a bonus.”
The couple partnered with several local nonprofits to benefit veteran services.
They said they are currently collecting items for holiday care packages, which will be sent to deployed soldiers through the Infinite Heroes Foundation.