CARY - A volunteer crew of Michael Hrehor's friends and family scrambles daily to finish the baking at Roma's Italian Bakery & Deli. They have arrived before dawn every morning to keep Hrehor's downtown Cary deli going since he died last month of a heart attack at age 42.
About 1,200 people packed his wake Monday, waiting for hours to comfort his wife and three young children.
With his easy, attentive manner, Hrehor made friends of his customers. For many, a visit to Roma's was about good company as much as good food.
"Mike always made people feel at home, whether you walked in for the first time or you walked in every day," said Peter Valdini, who first visited Roma's 14 years ago. "He treated everybody like he knew you, even if he was busy doing an errand, running rolls out the door."
Hrehor, along with his brother, Benny, and his future wife, Lisa, followed waves of IBM workers south from New York in 1996. Though they arrived as employees of the new deli, they quickly became its owners. They had no idea they were starting an institution.
"No, we really didn't know," said Lisa Hrehor. "We were young - it was the first time anyone in either of our families had ever left the Binghamton area."
They were well suited to the business, which they named after Lisa's former employer, Jim Roma's Bakery in Endicott, N.Y. Michael Hrehor was an extraordinary conversationalist, easily sensing his customers' moods and interests, said friends and family. Carolina basketball was a frequent topic of discussion.
Michael, a former letter carrier, thrived on the hard, physical work, seeming never to take a day off in the bakery's early years. Profit was not his dominant motive, friends said. He was loyal to his customers, to a fault.
"He had accounts that owed him thousands of dollars - four, six thousand," said Matthew Regulski, a friend since childhood. "He'd say, 'These people are good people.' He would just continue to help them, even though it was causing him a lot of pain."
As the business grew, the Hrehors and their deli attracted customers and family alike.
"One by one we have all migrated down here. Because of them, the entire family is down here, both sides," said Ronald Dahulich, who rose early many mornings to bake with his son-in-law.
The sturdy man's death came with little warning. He suffered a heart attack Feb. 23 just after sitting down for a break at his restaurant, Dahulich said. "He never had a chance - within the first 10 minutes, it was over."
At Hrehor's wake, Valdini said, throngs of people were "in shock, and just waiting for him to come in the side door to greet everyone. When you have a 42-year-old with three young kids and a beautiful wife, you just don't expect for this to happen."
While Hrehor's kin and friends reel, they're trying to ease the path of the young family that survives him. The Hrehors are accepting donations to an education fund for Mikayla, 11, and Kate and Sara, 8, at the Cary branch of the State Employees' Credit Union.
Meanwhile, volunteers from the couple's native and adopted homes are keeping Roma's doors open, trooping in eight and nine at a time to bake the deli's well-loved breads and pastries.
Lisa Hrehor hasn't announced her plans for the business, but she said it's changed forever.
"It was ours, it was his and mine, and he's not here," she said.
No matter the future, she said, she's thankful to have shared her life with Michael and the customers who became family.