While many people are busy celebrating Thanksgiving in theirs, or their friends’ or families’ homes, there are as many people taking their turkey, or avoiding it outright, in restaurants and bars. The reasons are myriad: perhaps a turkey disaster forced the festivities out; perhaps the extra long weekend was used for an excuse to travel. (Read: flee.) Or, there are plenty of American residents, as well as people visiting the U.S., who simply have no interest in Thanksgiving, with or without its perhaps dubious origin story.

Whatever the motivation, Thanksgiving may be a bank holiday, but it’s not a total shutdown, and many restaurants and bars keep their doors open to catch the orphaned, the travelers, the culinarily-challenged, the dishes-averse, the Thanksgiving-phobic, or simply the person in need of a drink and an hour away from the family.

Which then means, that for a subset of the country’s restaurant employees, Thanksgiving signifies something else entirely: another day at the office. The experience of working on Thanksgiving day inspires a veritable buffet of emotions from restaurant workers, myself included among them, ranging from: “My one and only Thanksgiving at work was enough to make me vow to get out of the business for good;” (Sheena Mohan, Houston TX) to: “I’ve worked the past three Thanksgivings, and now I have my family come to the restaurant to celebrate with me.” (Johnny Livanos, New York, NY)

international Thanksgiving recipe ideas

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Family Meal of a Different Nature

In keeping with the genuine vibe of Thanksgiving—which is gratitude, in case anyone needs reminding—I’d like to start with something I am indeed personally grateful for, in my time spent working the Thanksgiving shift. With all due respect to both the talented cooks in my family and anyone else’s family I’ve ever spent Thanksgiving with, and also to many of the memorable Friendsgiving meals I’ve had in my life, it’s really hard for any of that to compete with a Thanksgiving dinner put up by a brigade of professional chefs.

So while I may have sacrificed spending time with friends and family in order to serve others on Thanksgiving day, enjoying a 2-Michelin star Thanksgiving meal made to reward those who are working the holiday—albeit at ten a.m.—is hardly a sacrifice.

Running the Marathon

But it can be a punishing shift, and a long one, so it’s damn near necessary to have made the most of the feast that ended even before the parade did. Rather than the separate lunch and dinner shifts that occur on normal days, many restaurants will keep “shorter” Thanksgiving hours. The restaurant where I work seats from noon to six p.m. on Turkey Day. While that sounds like a relatively short shift, what that means is that staff have come in earlier than that to set up, and any diners sitting at 6 p.m. can be expected to be there for at least a couple of hours. So while it may be an earlier night than usual in restaurant terms, it can be a shift of maybe 10 hours. Strength and stamina most definitely required.

Thanksgiving dinner

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Taking One for the Team

Sometimes those working the Thanksgiving shift are looking out for their fellow employees who do have important Thanksgiving festivities to attend. Rather than roll the dice and leave it to the mercy (or lack thereof) of the scheduling gods, your Thanksgiving server or bartender may have actually volunteered to work. (All the more reason to treat them kindly.)

“There’s the joy of allowing some of my co-workers to spend the day with their family, alas—ours are too far away— and the thankfulness of guests who have a dining out option when most places are closed.” (Frederic Yarm, Boston, MA)

Guest Expectations

One challenge I have found in a Midtown Manhattan restaurant open on Thanksgiving, is that a lot of the diners that day aren’t necessarily American families trying to spare themselves a load of dishes at the end of the night, but rather international visitors to New York just looking for a place that’s open. They’re not approaching their dining experience like it’s a special occasion or anything out of the ordinary. Especially if there’s some sort of language barrier, communication can be made even more difficult when some of the dishes—especially those that feature heavily on Instagram—aren’t being served. It can be frustrating when you want someone to enjoy themselves, but they seem disappointed that the restaurant is not operating how they thought it was supposed to.

Spirit of Compassion

Unlike Valentine’s Day, which tends to engender a spirit of misanthropy among any romantically-challenged restaurant staff, it seems that Thanksgiving can foster a spirit of compassion, especially for those in need of company on such a family-centric holiday: “I’ve met several people who are alone and sad around the holidays and coming out and chatting to someone who will listen along with having some nice food and drink turns the day around for them. I’ve met some great people as well who are just so excited to be in New York for the day.” (Paula Fidler Lukas, New York, NY.) It’s hard to maintain a bitter edge in those moments when you feel like you are genuinely being of service.

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Escape Clause

But inevitably, sometimes the pressure from family and feasting turns to feistiness: “One night years ago, we were open for Thanksgiving and it was a disaster, angry people who had a bad family night, drunk college kids escaping their parents and the icing was the full family knock down drag out fight at 2:00 a.m.” (Lisa Cloutier, Bigfork, MT)

So, maybe this season, give thanks that you don’t have to work in a restaurant, and give good tips, for those who do.

Related Video: Etiquette Tips to Help You Survive Thanksgiving

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Pamela Vachon is a freelance writer based in Astoria, NY whose work has also appeared on CNET, Cheese Professor, Alcohol Professor, and Diced. She is also a certified sommelier, voiceover artist, and an avid lover of all things pickled or fermented.
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