As Menbere Aklilu looked across the office in her restaurant, she sighed deeply and said she promised herself she wouldn’t cry this time. This time, it was her second year hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at her restaurant, Salute. Last year, she provided 300 foods to the homeless and this year, she was offering the same dinner twice in the day, doubling the meals to 600.
But the promise did no good. Her eyes quickly filled with tears and she began speaking about someone who had especially touched her this year. It was someone who wasn’t homeless or in financial need. It was a man who said he didn’t want to be lonely this Thanksgiving. He lost his partner of 42 years in the spring of 2011. He spent last Thanksgiving alone at home.
“What can I say?” Donald Scales said with a slight chuckle. “I watched TV.”
Scales had been to Aklilu’s restaurant before, unlike most of the other customers that day. Scales said he and his partner, Steve, used to eat Sunday brunch together often. Since Steve passed away, Scales said he started eating brunch at Salute as a way of remembering him.
“I’m just so grateful to have a place to go,” Scales said of joining Aklilu and her customers Thanksgiving Day. But he said he felt uncomfortable at first because he’s not homeless and could pay for his meal. When he arrived, he said Aklilu held his hand tightly and he no longer felt out of place.
It was noon, just between the first and second meal. Stopping at tables and shuffling around the restaurant, Aklilu was constantly moving, greeting customers, holding their hands, and smiling the entire time.
“I am who I am because of this community,” Aklilu said. At the front of the restaurant, customers could pick up a brochure that explained Aklilu’s history. She moved to Oakland in 1995 from Rome, where she had lived in a shelter for three months before giving birth to her son. Aklilu’s financial struggles followed her to Richmond, but through a generous donation, she bought Salute and has been the owner for 10 years.
This Thanksgiving dinner, Aklilu said she had about 15 waiters serving customers.
The dinner was a project with many helpers. Aklilu paid for a bus to pick up customers, and individuals took their own cars to pick up others. Galaxy Desserts donated desserts for the second year and Richmond Wholesale donated 30 turkeys to the restaurant. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and Police Chief Chris Magnus were helping to serve food as well.
Along with free dinner, customers were given favors as they left. Aklilu had hundreds of bags in reserve upstairs—they varied for women, men, and children.
With a clear view of San Francisco in 65-degree weather, customers said they were thankful for the food and the view.
“The food is so delicious,” Frances Woods said, as she sat next to her husband of 40 years, a veteran who suffered a stroke two years ago. “I’m thankful I’m here alive to experience it,” she said.
As 2 p.m. approached and the restaurant began to empty out, a group of people sang “Oh, Happy Day” in a separate room.
“I’m lucky all the way around,” Scales said, leaning across the table to talk over the singing. “Menbe’s my Thanksgiving angel.”
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