A new Pay What You Can Christmas Dinner tradition has started at The Mill in Tillsonburg.
“Christmas is a tough time of year for lots of families, and not just financially,” said The Mill Eatery co-owner Patrick McMahon at the end of Saturday’s 4-7 serving of a traditional turkey dinner on Christmas day.
tap here to see other videos from our team.
“There’s loneliness, especially with COVID and families not getting together,” said McMahon. “They just can’t congregate. There’s people who can’t cook a Christmas dinner because they don’t know how. There’s people who can’t afford to buy a turkey this year. And there’s people who are alone and want to get out on Christmas and once again feel like part of the community.
“Putting a price tag on that is hard to do, but I also didn’t want it to feel like charity. If you’re bringing your son or daughter, it’s important that it feels like a regular restaurant on Christmas day. So we have staff in (who generously volunteered their time), waitresses bringing drinks… it is important to me that this Pay What You Can is literally ‘pay what you can.’
Originally from Woodstock, McMahon, 43, currently lives at Long Point, but will soon be moving to Tillsonburg.
He grew up in the food industry.
“I started as a dishwasher. I didn’t like dishwasher so I volunteered my Saturdays to a chef until I could work my way onto the line. Then after high school I did my apprenticeship to be a chef. And the rest is history.
“I’m just super lucky, I feel I am very lucky. I knew just how good it felt just to be taken care of on Christmas day when I had nothing else, and that’s part of why I’m here today. I’ve had a really interesting life and I’ve done some ‘fun’ things that got me into a lot of trouble, but at the end of the day I am where I am today because my parents raised me to be a considerate, caring, compassionate human being.
“I was fortunate enough to work in an industry, a job, that I loved. I have been able to do this for 25 years now and I love good food, good service, and it just works. Simple, not fancy, just good.
“To be the actual owner of this restaurant, it’s awesome. My life changed and I get to change other people’s lives.”
More than 50 tickets for Saturday’s dinner were distributed to the Helping Hand Food Bank. But the event was open to anyone from the community. Some people were very generous, McMahon said, noting that any extra funds after covering costs would be donated to the food bank.
“I didn’t force staff to work and I expected to pay them. They said, ‘we’re just happy to be here doing this tonight,’ which is awesome.”
Tillsonburg Custom Food covered some food costs donating vegetables and financial support.
“It’s been really well received,” said co-owner Mike McMahon, who put the deal together to buy Mill Tales Inn in October 2021 bringing together a team of eight investors that includes Ed McLaughlin and Les Lonsbary.
“I’m just the face,” said McMahon. “We own an umbrella corporation that owns the real estate together and the businesses, the inn and the restaurant, are separated. I own the restaurant (with silent investors) and the McLaughlins own the inn. The McLaughlins and Les, they have Seven Gables and they know how to run an inn. They have made the rooms into sort of a boutique hotel. So I’m fortunate the deal went the way it did. It was a good business – we bought a good business.”
The ownership transfer happened Oct. 26. Mill Tales Inn closed for a couple days before re-opening as a rebranded The Mill Eatery for the run-up to Halloween, which included a special night of live entertainment (and accepting donations for the Helping Hand Food Bank).
The Mill has kept its core menu items and evolved the classic menu adding a modern flair with vegetarian and gluten-free options.
“This was famous for the fish and chips and we’re still trying to do that at good value,” said McMahon, noting the learned Gordon and Laura Craig’s secret batter recipe.
McMahon, from his time at the Woodstock Farmers Market, recognizes the importance of local supplies. That includes Norpac beef (prime rib, steaks and ground beef), and local produce.
“This is a big place and it holds a lot of people and I’m working with my friends that I used to work with at the farmers market to keep it local. And people know we’re doing this.”
The Mill has a long history in Tillsonburg, most of it not as a restaurant/inn.
“It’s actually one of Tillsonburg’s most historic buildings,” said McMahon. “It was the first industrial building built in Tillsonburg, so that’s pretty important to maintain that history. So I was really fortunate that Laura Craig chose to deal with me and I’m super lucky to be able to operate this restaurant.”
Originally built as a pea and barley mill in 1878, the four-acre property on the Otter Creek (John Pound Road) was purchased by Gordon and Lauralee Craig in 2000.
“He (Gordon) said it will be a great historic legacy for Tillsonburg’s heritage long after we leave here,” Lauralee Craig wrote in a Facebook farewell message. “We all loved it from staff to customers, but especially Gordon. That’s why he believed in that movie Field of Dreams, ‘If you build it… they WILL come and they did. When Gordon left us, Christmas 2018… he took the dreams of the Mill with him, being here without him just doesn’t fit. I know it’s time to go and pass it on as it still has much more life in it yet… it’s full of spirit.”