Free Thanksgiving dinner at The First Presbyterian Church in Albany, NY.











(In today’s post we’ll look at two notable Thanksgiving gestures.)

Guess who’s coming to dinner . . .

Back when I was bartending at The Lark Tavern, I also volunteered one overnight a week at Refer Switchboard — a 24-hour hotline/crisis center in Albany, NY.

Refer was part of Project Equinox, a larger non-profit community organization that my sister Kathy helped create.  I’ve always thought that one of Refer’s and Equinox’s finest efforts was the free Thanksgiving dinner they’d prepare every year for our low income, homebound, or homeless neighbors.

By the time I moved to Albany and began at Refer, they were already serving 500 people at The First Presbyterian Church, and delivering more than 1500 Thanksgiving meals to the elderly and shut-ins.

Equinox and The First Presbyterian Church still serve the annual dinner– but now the number of Thanksgiving meals they serve and deliver is 9,500.

That’s right . . . for Thanksgiving this year 9,500 meals will be cooked, packaged and delivered to really some appreciative folks.

It’s a mind-boggling operation.

Here’s an idea of some of what they prepare:

10,400 pounds of turkey
2,000 pounds of ham
2,800 pounds of yams
8,500 dinner rolls
1000 pies
19,500 pieces of fruit.

Nine thousand, five hundred meals . . .

Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of volunteers now work under the direction of professional chefs who donate their time.  This army of workers peel mountains of potatoes, shred truckfuls of carrots, baste countless pans of turkeys.

The project has become so large that they can no longer cook in the kitchen at the church.  The Empire State Plaza donates its restaurant facilities, and the volunteers start on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  With each volunteer working as little as a 2-4 hour shift, group after group of hundreds of people continue working on through Thursday morning.

Once the food is prepared, it has to be packaged for delivery.  Drivers have to be organized, delivery addresses have to be collated, and all the maps and GPS’s are pulled out.  And then there’s the clean-up.

It’s an incredible effort.

Check out this video and you’ll see volunteers stirring giant, four-foot-wide caldrons of gravy.  You’ll see longs rows of tables with volunteers lined up on either side, packaging the dinners, sorting them by delivery neighborhood, and then helping the roughly 1000 volunteer drivers load the food into their cars.

Maybe I’m prejudiced because my sister is one of the people who started all this, but I think it’s a wonderful Thanksgiving gesture.

If you’re in the Albany area, it’s not too late to donate or volunteer (click here for details.)  And afterward you can head to The Lark Tavern to relax.


Restaurants offer free Thanksgiving meals to Hurricane Sandy victims (and others) . . .

Years ago at The Sunflower Café in Harvard Square, owner Lenny Levenson came to us just before Thanksgiving with a proposal.  Any of the staff who would still be in the area were invited to work a free Thanksgiving dinner at The Sunflower.

Apparently this had been a tradition at the Levenson’s family restaurant in NYC, and Lenny wanted to continue it now at his own place.

A free dinner would be served to anyone who walked in . . . college students stranded here during Thanksgiving break, people who simply had nowhere else to go, or had no one to share the holiday with, . . . older neighbors living on limited incomes, and even the homeless who panhandled in the Square.

Every dining room table was filled for several turns of “customers”, and at the end of the day Lenny gave each wait person enough cash out of his own pocket to make up for what they hadn’t made in tips.

Serving free food to the less fortunate is something of a tradition in many restaurants across the country.  This year — following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy — the list of contributing establishments continues to grow.

Below is a limited sampling of some of the restaurants and chefs making the extra effort.  (And then back next week with more bar stories.)

“Extreme Chef” Terry French. (Photo by Hadas Kuznits)

The Food Network’s “Extreme Chef”, Terry French, Egg Harbor Township NJ

Swingbelly’s BBQ, Long Beach NY

Fireside Saloon, Lindhurst NY

Hartigan’s Grille, Englishtown NJ

Salt Gastropub, Byram NY

Queen City Restaurant, Reading PA

OpenTable, New York NY

Via Napoli Pizzeria & Restaurant, Lanoka Harbor NJ

Seabreeze Catering and Deli, Spring Lake Heights NJ

Ma Duke’s, Danvers MA

Patty’s Place, Canandaigua NY

Blue Willow Café, Wausau WI

Theo & Stacy’s Restaurant, Kalamazoo MI

Jac Cekola’s Pizza, Portage MI

Calamari’s Squid Row, Erie PA

Sisters Gourmet Bistro, Van Buren AR

Samantha’s House of Pancakes, Angola IN

Novak’s Hungarian Restaurant, Albany NY

Cafe Gratitude, Santa Cruz CA

Apple Barrel, Bixby OK

La Casa Garcia, Anaheim CA

Richard’s Restaurant, Moberly MO

Paradise Grille, North East MD

Original Cottage Inn, Ann Arbor MI

The Iron Monkey, Jersey City NJ

Pops Restaurant, Milford CT

Siggy’s Restaurant, Murrieta CA

Anokha’s Cuisine of India,  Novato CA

Bierstube Steakhouse and Grille, White Bear Lake MN

Distractions Food and Drink, St Michael MN

Ristorante Don Giovanni, Mountain View CA

Our Place Bar and Grill, Decatur TN

The Family Buffet, East Dundee IL

Old Town Cafe, Bellingham WA

Pocketstones Cafe, BigFork MT

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  1. Mandy says:

    This is really cool Mike, nice to hear about the “giving” side of thanksgiving.
    I’ve always felt the East Coast is much more community orientated (though my experience is limited to Michigan and upstate NY- more midwestern?).
    There’s a distinctly hostile attitude to the poor where I live now. No one feels the connection.

  2. MikeQ says:

    Mandy: Whereabouts in Upstate NY were you, Mandy? I was born in Boston but grew up in the Syracuse area … spent a couple of years tending bar in Albany. Upstate is a strange mix … the bars can be rough, lots of fights, but people do look out for each other in general especially during the brutal winters. Maybe it has to do with the size of the towns/cities, but when you’re at a bar in Upstate NY it’s more expected that you’ll talk with the person sitting next to you no matter what the differences in age, income, or whatever.
    (PS…thanks for stopping by. I loved your latest post, “A Beautiful Myth.”)

  3. Llylak says:

    A good cause….did you know how much your enthusiasm shows? 🙂 Guess you can take the bartender out of the crises center, but you can’t take the…. well, you know what I mean. 🙂

  4. Mandy says:

    Buffalo. My grandparents moved there some years ago. I have to admit I feel a bit like a fish out of water when I visit 😛

  5. Michelle says:

    We love volunteering for equinox in albany every thanksgiving. Been doing it for 7 yrs now and wouldn’t miss it.

  6. MikeQ says:

    Michelle: Thanks for dropping by, Michelle! Looks like you’re pretty busy with good causes (the link on your name.) Do you live in Albany now? I keep meaning to hit Albany for a couple of days, and visit the “new” Lark Tavern.

  7. Nicole Doliner says:

    I was a volunteer at Refer in the early 80s. What a wonderful place!
    The skills I learned have added to my life’s toolbox.
    Often wonder what happened to all those dedicated folks……………

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