Every Sunday after the worship service at Sharon Lutheran Church -- and after a little socializing over coffee in the fellowship hall -- Terry Fontaine and a group of friends heads out for brunch.

“We average about 10 every Sunday. But we could have as many as 12 to 14,” she said. “We have a good time visiting.”

Fontaine, who lives in Grand Forks, was invited to join the group after her husband died about nine years ago.

“We’ve been nicknamed the ‘Sharon Merry Widows,’ ” she said. “We don’t have husbands to go home and make dinner for.”

Brunch has become an essential part of the Sunday morning routine for her and many people in the area. And several restaurants are vying for that slice of the market, including American Legion, Eagles Crest Grill, Italian Moon and Ruby Tuesday locally, and, if you’re up for a Sunday drive, Christy’s Lakeview Catering on Lake Tobiason near Hatton, N.D.

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“A lot of regulars come in,” said Scott Humble, general manager at the Ruby Tuesday restaurant. “And we get new customers, too. It’s a hit for us.

“As managers, we like to touch every table,” Humble said. “People say, ‘It’s our new favorite place to go for brunch.’ That’s great to hear.”

“There are people we see here every week. Normally, when people come in here and try it, they come back," said Abraham Potvin, a manager at Ruby Tuesday said.

The biggest complaint managers hear is the absence of bacon on the buffet, but serving that crispy strip of meat is cost-prohibitive, Humble said.

With Sunday brunch offered from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Ruby Tuesday staff puts out a spread that includes breakfast and dinner items, such as “eggs, hash browns, biscuits and gravy, sausage links, ham and flank steak,” said Ryan Sande, culinary manager.

At a “live omelet” station, the cook prepares omelets to order, with nine ingredient and three cheese options.

Other restaurants in the Grand Cities, too, offer brunch as late as 2 p.m. and feature breakfast as well as dinner food choices to satisfy customer cravings.

“Biscuits and gravy are one of the biggest sellers here,” Sande said. “It’s kind of a Southern thing, but they’re pretty popular here.”

The basics of the brunch buffet remain pretty constant, he said.

“We keep the essentials the same, but I like to change things up, too," he said. “I try to find something new; I experiment with two dishes each week. It might be a pasta and something fried or baked.”

It has to have wide appeal, he said.

“You don’t want to put a $40 salmon dish out there that’s going to be eaten by one person. And it has to be relatively easy to make.”

Potvin said he and the staff want to “wow” customers with the food, “but it’s not just about the food.”

They want customers to receive exceptional service in an atmosphere that “feels like an extension of their home,” Potvin said. “That’s the environment we try to give people.”

Lakeside buffet

Christy Holweger, who has been offering a Sunday buffet at Christy’s Lakeview Catering for about five years, said her business also attracts regular customers.

Reviews by some of them, on Facebook, are glowing: “best food ever,” “great food, wonderful atmosphere,” “delicious food and great service” and “I’ve had dreams about her food.”

The restaurant overlooks Lake Tobiason, Holweger said. She and her husband, Jim Holweger, recently relocated to the property from their former home east of Hatton, she said.

This Sunday, she’s presenting a dinner buffet, which includes meatballs, barbecued ribs, chicken, baked ham, mashed potatoes, creamed potatoes, beans, carrots, tater tot hotdish, a salad bar, desserts and coffee, Holweger said.

Of all the foods she prepares, she said: “I guess the meatballs are the most popular.”

The buffet is offered on the third Sunday of each month.

“I’ll probably take January and February off, if we have a winter like last winter,” she said.

Food, friends, fellowship

Among the 10 or so restaurants that Fontaine’s church group frequents, she is partial to one in particular.

“I like the Italian Moon,” she said. “I’m probably biased because my son is head cook there.”

Jeff Fontaine, now retired from a teaching career in Texas, used to come back summers to work at the Italian Moon, an enduring fixture in the local restaurant scene. He returned to his hometown about two years ago to work there full time, she said.

“Every once in a while, he’ll call and say, ‘Do you have a recipe for such-and-such?’ I say, ‘Sure.’ He may have too much a product and wants to use it in the buffet," she said. “He enjoys cooking and especially the people he’s worked with and knows all these years."

The Merry Widows of Sharon Lutheran also goes back quite a few years. The group got its start when Bernell Bachmeier noticed a woman sitting alone at church and asked her to have coffee after the service in the church’s fellowship hall.

“She was a pastor’s wife who had moved back to town after her husband died,” Bachmeier said. “She was used to making dinner for her husband and then going to church. She invited me to dinner at her home.”

The two eventually began going out for dinner after church and later invited other widows to join them, and “it just grew,” said Bachmeier, who lives in Grand Forks. “Lately, about 16 to 18 of us have been going.”

The outing is less about the meal than just being together.

“It’s the socializing more than anything else. We don’t have to go home and eat alone," Bachmeier said. “We talk about whatever is occurring in our lives and events of the day -- like friends in high school. We talk like teenage girls.”

Sunday Buffet options:

American Legion -- 1009 Central Ave. N.W., East Grand Forks -- (218) 773-1129

8 a.m. - 1 p.m.

$9 per person; $5 for children ages 6-10; free for children age 5 and younger

Christy’s Lakeview Catering -- 13602 16th St. NE, Hatton, N.D. 58240 -- (218-791-5169)

11 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.

$16 per person; $5 for children ages 5-12; free for children younger than 5

Buffet schedule: Sept. 15, Oct. 20, Nov. 17, Dec. 15

Eagles Crest Grill -- Kings’ Walk Golf Course, 5301 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks -- (701) 787-3491

9 a.m. - 2 p.m.

$13.99 for adults; $6.99 for children ages 4-12; free for children 3 and younger

Italian Moon -- 810 S. Washington St., Grand Forks -- (701) 772-7277

11 a.m. - 2 p.m.

$12.09 for adults; children are 80 cents per year of age, from 5-12 years old (kids 10 and younger eat free with each adult meal)

Ruby Tuesday -- 3915 32nd Ave. S., Grand Forks

9 a.m - 2 p.m.

$14.99 for adults; $5.98 for child ages 6-12; free for children younger than 6