MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Thanksgiving Day meal at Westy’s in the Pinch District in downtown Memphis is a time-honored tradition. But like so many events this year, there was talk of canceling the annual dinner because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That did not happen.
“My goodness. The spirit’s here,” Jake Schorr at Westy’s said.
Schorr has run Westy’s for 36 years, and every year the doors of his restaurant are open to anyone on Thanksgiving for a free meal and clothes if they need it.
This year, volunteers prepped 1,200 plates in a to-go style, complete with social distancing and masking enforced in the line. Prepped on Thanksgiving morning, 56 turkeys and 40 hams were served up complete with all the holiday fixings.
“As you go around and talk to the volunteers, they’re happy and assertive to do this. When they started talking about not doing this, I encouraged everybody to do it and said we’ll find a way, make it as safe as we can,” Schorr said.
Schorr said they actually needed fewer volunteers this year because the dining room isn’t open. And they’re keeping a list of those who pitched in for contact tracing purposes, just in case someone gets ill.
Food insecurity has increased in Memphis amid the pandemic, and Schorr says it is the main reason he didn’t want to shelve the feeding.
“There’s more need. I recognize it. The volunteers that are here recognize it, so we are doing it,” he said.
That’s what motivated volunteers like Teresa Griffith to get involved.
“A year like this makes it so much easier to be thankful for having food, for having a roof over our heads. And to see so many people need food and not have it, it just breaks my heart,” she said.
Winfred Reed is an Army veteran and a Westy’s customer. He said despite the pandemic, he has a lot to be thankful for, including the generous hearts that put the meal together.
“I’m thankful for my health, one thing. For my wife, my grandkids, and just life itself,” he said.
Schorr said it’s not lost on him the struggles of Memphis-area restaurants amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He said sales at Westy’s are down roughly half a million dollars this year.
This week, citing increasing COVID-19 transmission county-wide, the Shelby County Health Department enacted new restrictions on restaurants that cut capacity to 50 percent and require them to close dining rooms at 10 p.m. nightly.
“I’m here with stress. How’s that. Any restaurant owner is going to say the exact same thing. How do we stay here? How we do survive? How do we not lay people off? How do we make a profit? I don’t know all those answers,” Schorr said.
Wednesday the Memphis Restaurant Association sent a lengthy letter to the health department asking them to reconsider the restrictions and give the association more input on future changes. A health department spokesperson said the agency will prepare a formal response to the MRA.
Schorr said he is hopeful 2021 will bring brighter days for everyone hurting because of COVID-19, including the area’s restaurants.
“We’re trying. We’ve had a lot of things happen to us through the years. But this is the big deal. And the limited seating we have, and a lot of people regardless of whether it’s Westy’s or other restaurants are not going to restaurants.” he said.