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Duluth diner picks up others' tabs just for fun

Dean Davidson of Duluth describes the pleasure he gets from paying for other people's meals at Bridgeman's Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlour near Miller Hill Mall. (Bob King /

Dean Davidson's habit started with an impulse.

"One day I walk into Bridgeman's and there was a bunch of people, and I said this would be kind of cool if I paid everybody's bill," the Morgan Park resident said.

He did some quick calculations, guessed it would cost $300 to pick up everyone's tab and knew he didn't have quite that much.

So he covered one table's meals, anonymously.

But that was just the beginning.

"I decided maybe what I'll do is I will start buying people's breakfast until it gets to be 30 people," said Davidson, who is in his 60s and works part time at Minnesota Vacuum & Sewing to supplement his Social Security. "And I thought: Well, this is kind of fun."

He had ample opportunity. For the past eight years, Davidson has eaten a late-morning breakfast almost every weekday at the restaurant in the Miller Hill district.

And every time he went to Bridgeman's from May 2011 to May 2012, Davidson secretly paid for someone else's breakfast.

He hasn't been able to entirely break the habit.

"I still do it," he said. "I just don't do it on a multi-binge."

On Thursday, Davidson was sitting at a corner booth at Bridgeman's shortly after 11 a.m., eating from a plate of pancakes and fruit. Described by Bridgeman's employees as a man with long gray hair, always neatly dressed, he was easy to spot in the busy restaurant. He wore a gray-and-black striped sweater over a button-down shirt, with black-frame glasses giving him a scholarly look.

Davidson didn't seek the media attention -- the suggestion for this story came from another Bridgeman's customer. Once approached, though, he didn't hide from the publicity. He explained his activities matter-of-factly.

He was dining alone on Thursday, although in a sense he seemed to be with everyone in the restaurant.

"It's time for another clue, Dean," said Arlene Williams, 79, of Saginaw, who was having coffee with her sister-in-law, Sandy Johnson, 67, of Duluth in a booth across the aisle from Davidson.

Williams was referring to another of Davidson's traditions. Each day he comes to Bridgeman's equipped with a trivia question, sometimes bestowing a prize on the first to answer it. The question quickly makes the rounds of the tables and booths.

"Dean is always entertaining," said Colleen Marshall, a waitress at Bridgeman's for nearly 16 years who holds the record for correctly answering the question three days in a row. "Dean livens things up."

"I answered it one time," said June Edwards, 85, of Duluth, who was seated at a round table with friends from the Taking Off Pounds Sensibly group. "It was: Who was Hopalong Cassidy's horse?"

As many as eight to 10 from the TOPS group gather at Bridgeman's every Thursday, said Roseann Shoberg, 77, of Duluth. Once, she said, Davidson paid for all of their meals.

Cowboys, and especially the Lone Ranger, are a theme with Davidson. When he started buying other people's meals, he got Lone Ranger baseball cards, put them in collectors' sleeves and signed "The Lone Ranger" on the back. The waitress would deliver the card to the table that was receiving the free meal.

"I'd slip them in with their meal with the idea that nobody is supposed to know who I am," Davidson said. "I have a fun time watching them look around, stretch their necks, trying to figure out who it is."

But Bridgeman's is a restaurant that attracts regulars, and his cover largely has been blown. On Thursday, he brought two Lone Ranger cards with the words "Have a hot fudge sundae on me" on the back. He went through the motions of having a waitress deliver the cards and the sundaes to Williams and Johnson, but they weren't fooled.

"Thank you, Dean," they said, amid grandmotherly giggles.

Davidson, who is divorced and has two grown children, has taken his giving beyond Bridgeman's, to the CHUM shelter, to nursing homes, even to the sidewalks outside of bars. He keeps track of his giving, but he declined to reveal the total amount.

Davidson noted that he has received gifts in return, especially from the Bridgeman's staff. One waitress brings him books, and another gives him fresh vegetables in season. At times, waitresses have paid for his meals.

But he receives the most simply from the act of giving, Davidson said.

"It makes me feel better than it makes the people feel, I'm sure," he said. "I get a big kick out of it, actually."