Pork chops replace pool tables

Published 6:55 am Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lifestyles & Features Editor

Michael and Danielle Hunnings have a special affinity for The Mecca.
Not only do they own and operate the popular downtown Washington eatery, they met there by chance.
“I came in with his brother and some other friends to pick him up from work, so this is where we met,” said Danielle Hunnings.
The Hunnings family’s association with The Mecca goes back to May 2004, according to Michael Hunnings. The family purchased the combination pool hall/diner then; they discovered they were making far more money from meals served than pool games played, so the pool tables bit the dust in 2006 in order to expand the kitchen and provide more seating.
Michael and Danielle Hunnings have the service business in their blood.
A native of Greenville, he has a wealth of retail and cooking experience, perhaps inherited from his grandmother, who loved to bake, and an uncle who was a chef.
Danielle Hunnings grew up in Waterloo, Ill., where her parents ran a bed-and-breakfast when she was a youngster. She later worked what she called “hospitality jobs” at the local country club and in restaurants.
After that first chance meeting at The Mecca, the couple began dating and, eventually, she joined the restaurant’s staff. They left in December 2008 to return to Danielle Hunnings’ home state of Missouri to get married. They stayed for roughly 10 months before returning to Washington — and The Mecca.
The restaurant was being leased, but the newlyweds knew they could make a go of it with a little ingenuity and elbow grease. They revamped the menu, adding new dishes and keeping old favorites in place. The Mecca reopened with the new Hunnings couple at the helm in November of last year.
“We’re still tweaking the menu,” said Michael Hunnings, a bit more quiet than his wife but still friendly and outgoing. It is he who spends most of his work time manning the grill and fryers. Danielle Hunnings, meanwhile, waits tables and greets almost every customer with a smile when he or she comes in the door.
The Mecca offers what the couple calls “comfort food.”
“We have five or six signature burgers, fresh fried shrimp, homemade desserts and soups and specials,” Michael Hunnings said. “We do as much homemade as possible. That’s what people come here for, the hand-patted burgers and the collards on Friday. We’re trying to get back to the basics.”
The Mecca’s specials vary by season and by day and include homemade lasagna, meatloaf and chicken salad. Friday’s standing special has become a favorite of downtown merchants and shoppers; the plate is piled with grilled or fried pork chops, collards and two additional side dishes.
Grandmother would be hard pressed to provide a better lunch-time spread.
“It can be a little challenging trying to come up with new and inventive ways to keep customers happy, keep them coming back,” Michael Hunnings admitted.
The Hunnings must be doing something right because The Mecca bustles with business on a daily basis, keeping the couple and their six employees on their toes. It isn’t unusual to see a society matron enjoying lunch at a table adjacent to a group of blue-collar workers.
“I love that people of all socioeconomic classes come here to eat,” said Danielle Hunnings, a former teacher at P.S. Jones Middle School in Washington. “Most people can afford it.”
The Mecca’s hours of operation can be a little confusing for novices, so pay close attention: On Saturdays and Sundays, the staff serves breakfast and lunch all day (Saturdays from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.). The restaurant also is open each weekday (check the door for current hours), but it stops serving breakfast at 11 a.m.
Running The Mecca is a lot of hard work, but there are rewards, according to Danielle Hunnings.
“When you have a customer say ‘Thank you’ for taking such good care of them or serving them a good meal, that means a lot,” she said. “We cater to families, and we know their names and they get to know us. It makes it all worthwhile.”