Free Thanksgiving Meals

Despite the allure of Black Friday and threat of Christmas creep, the Thanksgiving holiday still offers a chance to gather with friends and family to enjoy a homemade or store-bought meal. Because a growing number of Americans opt to order carry-out restaurant meals and even dine out altogether, it’s becoming more common for restaurants to operate on Thanksgiving Day – but some places open on the holiday to serve free meals.

For 12 years, Salty’s Pub and Bistro in Clifton Park, N.Y., has partnered with the Twin Bridges Rotary Club to feed hundreds of people in the community. We talked to Salty’s owner John Marzilli about how the “Spirit of Thanksgiving” collaboration started and what it takes to make sure no one in the community dines alone.

Spirit of Thanksgiving

“I guess it all started when I was a little kid,” says Marzilli about his love for Thanksgiving. “My dad was a chef, and he used to bring home dishwashers and servers and cooks – people who had no place to go for Thanksgiving. We used to complain, you know, ‘Dad, what’re you doing? It’s Thanksgiving! It’s a family day.’ And we’d have people over there we didn’t even know.”

Making sure no one has to spend the holiday alone is a lesson that stuck with Marzilli and eventually led to Salty’s first “Spirit of Thanksgiving” event in 2005. That’s when he approached Twin Bridges members who were enjoying a meal at the restaurant and proposed the partnership, offering his time and restaurant in exchange for the manpower provided by Rotary Club volunteers.

“The only person that’s on the payroll is me, so it’s always fun to serve 600 people with all volunteers in your restaurant,” Marzilli laughs. “It’s quite the challenge, but we’ve been doing it now for 12 years and everybody knows their role.”

They served around 200 meals at the first event in 2005, and Marzilli estimates they served more than 600 meals in 2016. He hopes to exceed 700 this year.

“I wish it wasn’t that much, in a sense, because it’s sad to say you have that many people that have no place to go,” says Marzilli. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, because if you have no place to go, you’re welcome. There’s other people that just can’t afford to put a turkey on the table. So we try our best to put out a real quality product. We roast our own turkeys; I bet you we do 600 pounds of turkey.”

The menu this year includes tossed salads, stuffing, candied yams, green beans, and scratch-made gravy, as well as pies, breads, and other baked goods provided by Dolce & Biscotti, a local bakery and long-time contributor to the event. Given the amount of food required, preparations for the meal begin weeks in advance.

“I’ve been planning it for the past month now, with getting the right product at the right price,” says Marzilli. “It takes us three solid days of two or three people putting it together. The night before, we put the turkeys in a nice Alto Shaam slow-cooker, and when we get here in the morning it’s all done.”

Marzilli and the Rotary Club volunteers begin the Thanksgiving Day service at 11 a.m. with hundreds of to-go orders that are either delivered or picked up. The process continues with full-service dining from noon to 3 p.m. In order to more accurately anticipate how much food to prepare, participation in the event requires reservations, which can be made through the Rotary Club.

Those in the southern Saratoga County community who don’t participate in the annual event as diners are often still aware of the work Salty’s and the Rotarians do each year.

“All throughout the year, I get customers saying, ‘It’s a good thing you do,'” says Marzilli. “It’s the least I can do. I’d rather be doing that than sitting around the table and gorging myself while other people can’t.”

Some of the volunteers who make the Spirit of Thanksgiving a success span multiple generations of families who’ve been helping out since the first year, teaching their children and grandchildren the same lessons of gratitude and generosity Marzilli’s father taught him.

“I think it was last year that we had a server with an infant on her back,” recalls Marzilli. “I have kids that are 6 and 7 years old walking around with dinner rolls and stuff like that. It makes an impact on the people that work the function.”

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Critical Role, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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