Cafe Gratitude celebrates its favorite holiday with a free meal for all

On Thanksgiving, the folks at Cafe Gratitude feel that everybody else has finally caught on.

At Cafe Gratitude, plates are printed with the question that goes around many holiday tables: "What are you grateful for?"

And each day at Cafe Gratitude, 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, open to anyone rich or poor who walked in – after waiting in the 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.

And the food received near-universal acclaim.

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 and I should come and enjoy with everyone."

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. Later, her plate empty, she raved about the food.

"This city can feel really lonely sometimes. It doesn’t feel lonely here," said Lauren Bradshaw, who came with her family and another family.

"Financially it’s been tough for both our families," said Bradshaw, who has a stuffed-animal business and lives in Mar Vista with her photographer husband and their 3-year-old son, Henry. This dinner "really came at a time when we could use it. We are immensely grateful."

Henry, a little squirrelly in Bradshaw’s arms, gave thumbs up to the juice and pie, thumbs down to the rest. He was ready for the next stop: the park.

Norwood Fisher, a regular customer from Santa Monica, has just finished his meal. "It feels like there’s authentic love in the building. The people working here – I sense a joy in their giving," he said.

"It is really nice to have somewhere to go that’s not full of dead animals," said a more practical Justin Sandler, who sat at a table with his wife, Mary Lou, and their friend, Vincent Garma. The Sandlers were celebrating their new book to raise money for breast and testicular cancer, the "Beard Book."

Cafe Gratitude employees supervised the 70 or so volunteers – customers, neighbors and friends who put on name tags with the slogan "I am service."

"I didn’t feel like cooking," said one volunteer, Jamie Ingalls, a private chef. "I don’t eat meat or dairy, and I wanted to do something different. I don’t like all the pressure to do it just one way."

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. "I like the no judgment -- whatever you're coming for. 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 names that are 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.

Meals were served plated, using the restaurant’s usual dishes, utensils, glasses, even cloth napkins. People stayed as long as they liked, with plenty of people standing in the sun to take their places.

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 on Larchmont Boulevard in L.A. 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 an MMA fighter and a former heroin addict who has been using crutches or a cane for weeks but 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.”


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