For Robert Cockerham, picking up to-go spaghetti at the World's Largest Spaghetti Dinner and Bake Sale is a 20-year tradition.
And in that time he has become a pro at avoiding the busiest crush of people at the event, where volunteers usually dish out more than 11,000 boxed meals, plus baked goods, at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church.
Cockerham, who lives in Spring Lake, says he once went during lunch to see how that was.
"Wrong answer," he says with a smile.
He's experimented with 4 and 5 o'clock (No) and 3 o'clock (Not bad.)
On Wednesday, he was second in line as he sat and scribbled out a check to volunteers before the official 10 a.m. opening of the event.
"This is the first time I've come this early," he says, adding that the time works for him.
He picked up 18 dinners for family and friends. His family would be ready and waiting - his son called him Tuesday to remind him that the spaghetti dinner was Wednesday. (Good thing too, since Cockerham had forgotten.)
But he also bought dinners for a few neighbors.
"They don't even know I'm buying it for them," he said. "It's a surprise."
Volunteer Pete Skenteris said many of the people who come early are picking up orders for their companies. Volunteers will also deliver orders over 30 boxes, he said.
Skenteris is a long-time volunteer for the event, now in its 56th year, and knows all its history - for instance, that the special sauce was a recipe that the late Pete and Ethel Parrous brought with them from New Jersey.
Asked about his biggest single order this year, he leaned in and said proudly, "850."
That massive order was for the Cumberland County Detention Center, he says.
"Everyone eats," Skenteris says, in what could be a slogan for the World's Largest Spaghetti Dinner. "Not only the jailbirds, but the employees."
On Wednesday, the very first person in line, who gave only the first name Phil was out in the chilly church parking lot packing 30 lunches into his car. Those were for the hard-working crew at Hank's Car Wash on Raeford Road, he said.
Phil says he is usually the designated guy to pick up the annual spaghetti order. He says he is his boss' "pickup guy for anything he's got going on."
Many Fayetteville traditions have formed around the spaghetti dinner, a community affair that involves not only the entire Greek church congregation, but the Greek community, friends and business and political leaders. The money raised supports the church's outreach efforts.
Irene Bantsolas is one of the members of a church woman's group, Philoptochos ("Friend of the poor"), which prepares the baked goods, ranging from the rich and textured baklava to koulourakia, a cookie that goes well with coffee. The women start weeks in advance, and the treats are all hand-made.
The baking sessions, Bantsolas says, are a time of fellowship, when the women chat, bring food for each other and "sing songs from the old country."
She says the baking traditions are being passed down, but not as much as the women would like because some of the young mothers are busy working outside the home.
She says she and the other women hone their baking skills over time.
"We're pretty good at it," she says with a wry smile. "We haven't failed yet."
It takes lots of time to do the baking, she acknowledges.
But as the yearly success of the dinner proves, it is time well spent.