Plates are printed with the question that goes around many holiday tables: “What are you grateful for?”
And each day, there is a question of the day — a practice some find too precious for words and some take as a nudge to live mindfully. Thursday’s question was the obvious: “What are you grateful for?”
"We’re supposed to be grateful 365 days a year," said Ryland Engelhart, one of the owners of the chain of Cafe Gratitude restaurants and the company’s chief inspiration officer. "Thanks and giving. Why are those two words together? This is our quintessential holiday. This is our day."
The Cafe Gratitude just a few blocks from the beach in Venice opened its doors Thursday for a free meal, available to anyone rich or poor who walked in — after waiting in a line that stretched down Rose Avenue. It’s a vegan restaurant, and the executive chef, Dreux Ellis, prepared an animal-free twist on the classic meal, enough to feed 1,000 people. In the past, 400 to 600 people have shown up.
Dee Cass stood in line with her cats, Princess Cinderella and Prince Charming, in a pink buggy. She said she normally sleeps near the Marina del Rey fire station and walked to the cafe because a friend told her “they would have the to-die-for vegan meal.”
When she got to the front of the line, where volunteers held out donation cans, she dug into her coat pocket. “I can only give you a quarter, but I’m happy to give the quarter,” she told them. And later, her plate empty, she raved about the food.
"It is really nice to have somewhere to go that’s not full of dead animals," said Justin Sandler, who sat at a table with his wife, Mary Lou, and their friend, Vincent Garma. The Sandlers were celebrating their new "Beard Book," which will raise money for breast and testicular cancer research.
Cafe Gratitude employees supervised the 70 or so volunteers — customers, neighbors and friends who put on name tags with the slogan “I am service.”
Laura Taylor came from Laguna Beach to help out. “There’s a spirit of acceptance and love of everyone no matter where you are in your life,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you are wealthy or poor.”
Engelhart said it’s a challenge most days to combine love and gratitude with running a business, even one where the dishes have affirmations such as “I Am Grateful” and “I Am Whole.”
"Today we get to take commerce out of the equation," he said.
Before the doors opened at 11, the staff and volunteers formed a big circle, holding hands to hear about how the day would proceed and then to speak in English or Spanish about what made them grateful. Answers included family and friends, health, trees, the present moment, being of service.
The menu: a loaf made from red lentils, brown rice, kale, butternut squash and other vegetables; a raw stuffing with pecans, apples, nuts, celery and fennel; mashed potatoes with roasted garlic and mushroom gravy; roasted mixed vegetables; green salad with persimmons and pomegranate; pumpkin pie; and a fruit juice spritzer.
This was the second free Thanksgiving at the Venice location, but the company has offered the meals for a decade at some of its other spots; there are restaurants in L.A.’s Larchmont area as well as Northern California and Kansas City, Mo.
Some of Cafe Gratitude’s vendors donated supplies for Thanksgiving and the cafe paid for the rest, Engelhart said. The donations were for two employees, a bartender who has been out of work with knee injuries for six weeks and a woman who has had to leave work to take care of family.
The bartender, Jay Viola, came on Thanksgiving. He’s also a mixed martial arts fighter and a former heroin addict who has been using crutches or a cane for weeks and hopes to have surgery.
He’s thrilled at the financial help but not terribly surprised. “After being here a year, it wasn’t that big of a shock,” Viola said. “But I have a hard time accepting help. It’s one of the things I’m learning here.”