Angela Hansberger, a food writer from Tucker, Georgia, missed going to restaurants as part of her job after the pandemic hit. But when her uncle sent her a tiny picnic table, a customer immediately showed up and suddenly she was in the restaurant business herself, playing host to a hungry chipmunk.
"The chipmunk's name is Thelonious Munk," Hansberger told TODAY Food. "I named this because I was listening to jazz while making one of his tiny meals."
People have had a strong reaction to Hansberger's Instagram posts about the fine-dining chipmunk. As the pandemic carried on, her table service became increasingly elaborate. She's made everything from tiny "sushi" to a down-home "nut burger" night for Thelonious, and documented it all for people to enjoy.
"In early April, my Uncle Ed - who owns a bowling center in Ohio and was shut down due to the pandemic - mailed me the table," said Hansberger. "It was intended to be nailed to a fence for squirrels. I set it down on my front porch while I took the packaging to the recycle bin. When I walked back, there was a chipmunk sitting there like a little person. I gave him some nuts I had leftover from a holiday pie and he ate them. The next morning I did the same. He came every day, sometimes sitting at the empty table waiting for me."
Since she missed her former life going to restaurants to write about chefs and cocktails, she came up with the quirky idea to start creating special dishes for her only customer.
"I began plating his dishes, learning about what was good and not good for a chipmunk diet and trying to make entrees using nuts, grains and fruit," she said. "I thought about the restaurants I missed and made tiny tablescapes in homage to them. I missed ramen and sushi. I missed having a cocktail at a bar and talking with the bartender. I soon added a bar with barstools which I could change into a ramen bar or a sushi bar."
Since then, Thelonious has become a regular, showing up each day at the table.
"He has only pushed a few things aside — cabbage, peppers, shelled peanuts, strawberries," said Hansberger. "Early on, he left this wad of things - leaves and flowers. He brought it to the table, ate the food I left, and left the tiny bundle like a tip. It honestly made me cry."
People have been enjoying Hansberger's foray into rodent dining. So, on Oct. 15, she wrote about the experience in an essay for Bon Appetit.
"I started posting photos on Instagram and people had the kindest comments about how this was such a happy thing during a dark time," she said. "Some said it brought them joy and they looked forward to a new photo. So I began posting more. My husband helps me craft things out of scraps around the house. He made the BBQ smoker and built the bar. He made tiny rubber boots the other day when it was raining."
Hansberger has exciting plans in the works for the restaurant.
"There have been so many sweet messages with suggestions," she said. "I'm looking forward to some alpine scenes and maybe a little more campfire action. He really loves the little campfire (made out of rocks hot glued together). There is a tiny archway I put on the porch and he always runs through it to get to the day's meal. I look forward to that."
Hansberger also hopes to shed light on her beloved industry that is seriously struggling.
"People are doing everything they can to hold on to their jobs, their restaurants, their own places of joy," she said. "While doing so, most of them have been feeding their communities. They are creating patios, adding ventilation systems and doing everything possible to stay afloat while building safe places for customers to dine. Going to a restaurant right now is a luxury. Tip big. Buy gift cards for the future."