The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a lot of changes to Thanksgiving this year, but multiple Clark County restaurants and organizations still found ways to provide their usual holiday meal services for families in need.
Seeds of Greatness Ministries, the Vancouver NAACP branch and Odyssey World International Education Services partnered to offer Thanksgiving meals at River City Church on Fourth Plain Boulevard. The organizers said beforehand that they were prepared to feed about 350 people, and as of Thursday afternoon the group appeared to be closing in on that total.
Organizer Karen Morrison of Odyssey World said the group had served between 275 and 300 people as of about 2 p.m., with more people still arriving in the event’s final hour. More than 50 volunteers ran the event, which was organized as a walk-up or curbside pickup service. Morrison said the organizers tried to source all the food from businesses in the Fourth Plain corridor.
WareHouse ’23 has hosted an annual Thanksgiving Day meal for several years, but the event had to be reimagined from scratch this time around.
“In a normal year, it would be just like a restaurant,” owner Mark Matthias said — guests would be seated in the dining room and served a three-course meal.
With all indoor restaurant seating currently off-limits due to the pandemic, Matthias and fellow event organizer Rich Melnick switched to a drive-thru and delivery model, which took about six weeks to plan out.
WareHouse ’23 was prepared to provide about 1,500 meals over the course of the day, Matthias said. That’s nearly double the number produced in past years, with most of the boost coming from the new delivery option.
Based on pre-orders received in the weeks leading up to the big day, Matthias said the restaurant planned to send five teams out to deliver anywhere from 20 to 90 meals to each of 16 destinations such as senior living centers. The team expected to fill more than 800 orders through deliveries alone.
Melnick, a state Court of Appeals judge, began the tradition in 1982 in partnership with restaurateur Chuck Chronis. Matthias stepped in a few years ago after Chronis retired.
The meals are funded through a mix of community support and donations from WareHouse ’23’s food suppliers. The pandemic put a halt to many of the restaurant’s regular charity fundraiser events, Matthias said, but there was more than enough community involvement to make up for it — Matthias said he received $20,000 worth of donations in a just a few weeks.
The task of assembling all the food began Wednesday, with a small team of volunteers handling tasks like bagging disposable silverware and pairing 1,500 rolls with butter packs. The team swelled to almost 50 volunteers on Thursday morning to help with assembling the fresh-cooked food from the kitchen.
Volunteers lined two rows of tables along the length of the WareHouse ’23 lobby to create a pair of assembly lines, packaging individual meals in large to-go pans that were then sealed and stacked on mobile warming racks to be wheeled out to the front entrance.
Outside, volunteers operated two tables — one to serve a line of incoming cars for curbside pickup and another for walk-up customers. Guests who wanted to eat right away had the option of taking their food to a table at a two-sided tent set up in the parking lot, where additional volunteers distributed gift bags with socks, hats and other essential items.
The weather was a lucky break for the outdoor service, Matthias said — Thursday morning was overcast and cool, but with no rain and very little wind.
A line of vehicles had already formed in the WareHouse ’23 parking lot leading up to the 10 a.m. start of service, and the volunteer operation was able to keep the line moving swiftly, often delivering two or three meals per car.
The rate of visitors slowed down after the first half-hour, but chef Tanner Poncik said the team knew better than to slow down, because at some point there would probably be a rush of orders.
“Every year, it happens,” he said.
The relatively short curbside line obscured the massive amount of delivery service distribution happening behind the scenes. Matthias and Melnick had to call a temporary halt to the service at about 11:30 a.m. after running out of some food items.
Matthias had already sourced additional turkeys, Melnick said at the time, so distribution was scheduled to resume in the afternoon.
Melnick said he was glad to be able to keep supplying meals this year, although he regretted the loss of the event’s social restaurant atmosphere, which is part of what makes the Thanksgiving event special for guests who might not have family gatherings to attend.
Matthias and Melnick said they plan to repeat the entire operation for Christmas next month, incorporating any logistical lessons learned this time around.