DESTIN — At Harbor Docks, Thanksgiving begins early.
"Staff and volunteers are working in the kitchen; they're making stuffing right now," Harbor Docks owner Charles Morgan said earlier this week. "There's a lot of work that goes into it. Thanksgiving Day is almost a relief."
For the past 23 years, the Destin restaurant has opened its doors on Thanksgiving to everyone and anyone — regardless of whether they can pay or not. The word has caught on so much that organizers expect about 2,000 people each year.
"The idea came from one of my wonderful kitchen managers, Anne Jones," Morgan said. "The thought behind it is that as a restaurant, we've made a nice living selling food at a profit. Giving it away one day a year isn't that big of a deal."
But it is kind of a big deal, with more than 100 volunteers helping to prepare and serve meals. Morgan estimates they prepare about 3,000 pounds of food. They cooked 140 turkeys last year.
The people who sit down for meals come from all walks of life. Bankers and lawyers sit right next to those who may be less fortunate. Some pay. Some don't. There's no suggested donation, no judgment.
"It brings another demension to Thanksgiving," Morgan said. "Most people have a big meal and eat too much, then watch football on TV."
When Harbor Docks started the Thanksgiving meal, it was one of just a handful of places that stayed open for the holiday. In recent years, it's become more populated with visitors who want to spend the holiday by the beach.
"The first year wasn't so successful," Morgan recalled.
Now, Harbor Docks' sister restaurants in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama all offer Thanksgiving meals at no charge. All told, the restaurants feed more than 5,000 people. And the food is "ridiculously good," Morgan said.
"Some people come here just to get the gravy and dressing to go," he added.
Morgan said he enjoys watching his young employees take the opportunity to give back. Even if they're on the clock.
"They know they're helping somebody, and that's very rewarding," he said.
Not only does the meal give back to the communityy by feeding them, it also benefits local nonprofits. Donations are split between Destin Harvest and Habitat for Humanity Okaloosa County. Volunteers from both nonprofits help make the event happen.
Destin Harvest volunteers help prepare meals for the big day. Executive Director Chris Leavenworth said they work a few hours each day leading up to Thanksgiving to prep meals. For the past few years, the meal has become a tradition for Leavenworth and his wife and son.
"That's what Thanksgiving should feel like," he said. It's all smiles all day."
Destin Harvest harvests and delivers surplus food from grocery stores, restaurants and wholesalers and distributes it to 38 feeding programs in Okaloosa and Walton counties. The money raised at events like Harbor Docks' Thanksgiving meal helps keep operations going.
"It helps us to get through the winter when we receieve a lot of surplus," Leavenworth said. "The holidays are our heaviest (food) donation months, and that can get expensive to deliver."
While Morgan doesn't usually get a chance to sit down and enjoy a meal — "I'll be bussing tables," he said — Thanksgiving is his favorite day at the restaurant.
"I'm more proud of the work on that day than anything we do on the other 364 days of the year," he said. "November is my favorite month."