Since Thanksgiving Day this past Thursday, several people have asked me about the operation at Wendy’s that prepares and distributes 2,000 meals within just a few hours.
I just love watching it happen and I truly love being a small part of the annual event. For me, the morning started a little after 6 a.m. For many people, it started much earlier.
For a few people, it started the year before. Wendy’s started preparing their restaurant the night before. As they cleaned up after closing the restaurant before the Thanksgiving holiday, they also started moving tables and chairs. They started making way for the food-preparation amateurs who would be invading their restaurant the next morning.
Years ago, when the project first started, Gary Rome owned and operated the local Wendy’s Restaurant. He has been an enthusiastic partner in giving away Thanksgiving meals since the first event in 1995.
Even though Gary is no longer involved in the day-to-day operation of the restaurant, he is still there every Thanksgiving morning, making sure that anything that is needed is provided.
Over the years, Gary and many other employees of Wendy’s give up their own Thanksgiving holiday to help feed the community. I am sure there must be a bit of angst about the coming invasion of amateurs, but their commitment to helping the community overwhelms any reservations they might have.
Since my retirement several years ago, I rarely get up at six in the morning, but on Thanksgiving morning, I feel like a kid before Christmas. The night before, I have trouble getting to sleep because I’m thinking about seeing so many friends and great people the next morning.
It’s an exciting feeling. It’s hard work, but it’s also simply fun.
When I pull into Wendy’s, all the outside lights are out. Their big sign is dark. You can see the lights inside the dining area, and you can see several people inside getting ready for the big rush.
Tari Mabry is already at her table in the corner. She has paper and slips of paper covering the tabletop. Her phone is nearby waiting for more calls. Tari’s job is to accept calls from people who need a meal. She coordinates the drivers who will deliver the meals. On Thanksgiving morning, she is a busy lady.
When I got there, Arlafaye Carnahan was already fixing the gravy. Each meal will get a healthy dose of thick, tasty gravy. I’m not sure how much gravy Arlafaye gets ready, but I know it’s measured by the gallons.
As the gravy simmers in the back of the restaurant, Arlafaye starts getting the bread, pies and cranberry sauce ready. She knows what she’s doing. She moves quietly from task to task. When Arlafaye asks for something, people hop-to-it.
It seems like Lorry Swindler is everywhere. She knows the most efficient way to run the serving lines and gets tables and chairs lined up so there is very little wasted movement. As the volunteers start showing up, Lorry knows where they are needed most and gets people ready to get their jobs started.
According to these three ladies, the project started 25 years ago in the back of the Wilmington United Methodist Church. One day they were simply talking about what might be necessary to provide meals to the needy on Thanksgiving. That’s all it took to get these three ladies motivated and the project started moving.
Arlafaye, Tari and Lorry have a lot in common. They have huge hearts and it’s almost impossible to tell them “No.”
Like any great idea that is being discussed by great people, they think outside the box. In fact, they ignore all boxes and barriers or obstacles. They focus on the outcomes they are looking for and work tirelessly to accomplish their goal of feeding the hungry.
Over the years, I have graduated from delivering meals with my daughter, Jessi, to being a member of the Turkey Team. Shortly, at 7 a.m., the team heads to Kroger to pick up the birds, pie, rolls, boxes of stuffing and cranberry sauce.
I have never counted the number of turkey breasts we haul from Kroger to Wendy’s. It seems like about a million. It is enough to prepare a few thousand meals with plenty of turkey for everyone.
As soon as we get the birds and all the boxes of food stacked in the right location within Wendy’s, volunteers descend and start opening, moving, slicing and organizing everything.
Kroger cooks all the turkey. They used to be cooked in a mesh material that would keep the meat together. Now, they use special plastic cooking bags. We’re glad they switched over. It’s easier to open the plastic bags than it was to peal the mesh off the cooked bird.
All the bags of cooked turkey come in large aluminum trays. There are usually five or six birds per tray. It takes about seven of us to get the turkey bags cut open and the birds ready to carve. We save as much hot turkey-juice as possible to pour over the finished product to keep it moist and tasty.
This year, as we carried in aluminum tray after tray, I slipped a little as I carried in my first turkey-filled-tray and warm turkey-juice spilled into my coat, ran down my pant leg and filled my left shoe. For the next several hours I stood in a juice-filled shoe as we opened bags, sliced turkey and prepared it for the serving line.
Anyone who needs a meal or wants to donate to the project can simply call one of these ladies or the local homeless shelter or the Community Action office on Nelson Road. They provide behind-the-scenes support for the ladies that make it happen. Volunteers can simply show up and get an assignment.
It’s been my honor to have played a very small part in this annual event. Working with the turkey team, the stuffing-fixers and the guys we call the tater-tots is a joy. The whole morning is fun.
Even having a shoe filled with turkey juice can’t take away from the joy of Thanksgiving morning.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.