When Jen Stutts of Florence, Alabama, opened her restaurant seven years ago, she tried some thing that hadn't been done before in the area. On Thanksgiving Day, she invited anyone in need to enjoy a free dinner of turkey and all the fixings at her namesake business, Jen's Cafe.
What began as a small way to give back to the community has become a huge annual effort that enlists 100 volunteers and serves thousands who might not other wise enjoy a hot meal on Thanksgiving.
"It was originally my mom and dad's idea," recalls Jen, whose mother and two sisters lend a hand at the restaurant. "They wanted to do it in Cleveland years ago, but no church in the area would host it. So when I opened Jen's Cafe in June 2002, we tried it that November.
"The first year, we didn't think it would happen. Then we started calling people, and they said, 'We'll send you this or that.' And someone else said they'd drop this off ... and the churches offered to lend us some tables and chairs."
That first year, 300 people enjoyed Jen's home cooking on Thanksgiving Day. By 2008, the number had jumped to 7,500, including the 2,000 to 3,000 meals
delivered before the cafe opens.
It takes a lot of preparation and manpower to make the event happen. Jen says planning starts in August when area businesses are asked for donations.
The menu changes yearly based donations. "Last year a barbecue place smoked 45 turkeys for us last year, and a dairy donated all the milk and orange juice," she says, as examples.
"Some people donate time and money, some buy to-go containers for us to use, and others donate frozen turkeys or cases of vegetables. I don't turn anything away, and I don't throw anything away."
About 100 volunteers help out over two days, doing prep work, setting up trays, moving tables and chairs, opening cans ... the list goes on and on.
"It's so rewarding, knowing that you're giving back to people who are less fortunate," Jen says. "People don't understand that until they actually do it."
Among the crowd favorites on Thanksgiving Day are Jen's Squash Medley and Pineapple Zucchini Bread.
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