Ordering Thanksgiving Dinner To Go? How Best to Actually Support a Restaurant

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The Thanksgiving Menu Kit at San Francisco's Balboa Cafe (Balboa Cafe)

This year, personal milestones like birthdays and family celebrations and holidays like Passover, Eid, Diwali and Day of the Dead have been transformed or outright canceled because of the pandemic.

And now, as 94% of California's population moves back to the most restrictive COVID-19 guidelines due to a rapid uptick in cases, and the CDC advises against holiday travel, many people around the state are deciding to scrap previous plans to gather with family and stay home with their household for Thanksgiving instead.

If that's you, and you're looking at greatly reduced numbers at your holiday table this year, you may be contemplating doing away with a traditional home-cooked feast altogether and ordering Thanksgiving dinner to go from a local restaurant.

As an alternative to ordering a pre-prepared meal from a grocery store like say, Whole Foods, giving your money to a local business is an appealing thought. But how can you place an order in a way that truly supports restaurants and their staff, who have been so affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? We asked local restaurant staff for their tips.

Plan Ahead as Much as You Can

One thing about Thanksgiving eating that remains unchanged this year: last-minute planning won't cut it.

The same way you'd plan your shopping and preparation for a big family gathering, you'll need to plan any restaurant order you're considering — and many establishments will be closing their order window this week.

San Francisco's Balboa Cafe is one such restaurant offering a ready-to-reheat "Thanksgiving Meal Kit", with an order deadline of Friday, November 20. They're also offering their regular drinks kit to-go, including the choice of margarita pitchers, bloody marys or wine. Planning ahead is important, says Balboa Cafe's general manager Jesse Caetano, not just to ensure you don't miss the order cut-off but also to make sure you're ordering exactly what you want — as modifications on these Thanksgiving dinners aren't possible the way they might normally be during regular dinner service.

Oakland restaurant alaMar is offering two options for Thanksgiving to go: a BBQ spin on Thanksgiving dinner with smoked turkey, and a seafood boil — as well as holiday pies and cocktail kits.

alaMar's Executive Chef and owner, Nelson German, advises ordering by Monday, November 23, and "Tuesday at the latest." This gives the restaurant a chance to prepare your holiday order to the fullest.

Restaurants like alaMar in Oakland are offering Thanksgiving dinners to go — including pie (alaMar )

You should also plan how you'll get your food from a restaurant, and which pick-up slots are going to be possible for you and your household over the holiday period. Balboa Cafe is offering pick-up on Wednesday, November 25 only, while alaMar offers slots on both Wednesday and Thanksgiving Day — so wherever you're ordering from, make sure that you're going to be able to get there on a given day. (You might also want to check ahead of time about COVID-19 safety precautions being taken at your chosen restaurant, including whether curbside pick-up is being offered.)

If you're hoping to order "non-Thanksgiving" food from a restaurant for Thanksgiving Day, consider that restaurants might not decide their plans for this until closer to the day itself. (Basically, don't plan on necessarily being able to do this.)

And you're one of those who want to actually eat at a restaurant this Thanksgiving — which will only be available outdoors, due to the recent widespread closure of indoor dining — it goes without saying that planning ahead is even more crucial, with limited options for restaurants that are open on Thanksgiving Day. Balboa Cafe, for example, is offering a first-come-first-served lunch service on its patio on Thursday, November 26, followed by reservation-only Thanksgiving Dinner.

Lead With Care and Compassion

For restaurants that offer service during the holidays, Thanksgiving is a fraught, busy period in the best of years — but during a pandemic year, when so many businesses have been forced to close or barely hung on, all bets are off.

That means that extending your respectful understanding to restaurants and their staff at all stages of the Thanksgiving ordering process is the most compassionate, human way to go this holiday season. If you've picked a specific pick-up slot for your food, for example, do your utmost to stick to it. If you're met with any delays or corrections on the restaurant's side, remember what the staff might be up against, stay calm and cool, and work with them to resolve any situations that need it.

Whether you're picking up or ordering for delivery, give a tip. If you're visiting a restaurant to pick up, you might consider doing so in cash when you arrive to grab your Thanksgiving order.  Remember that many restaurant workers will be giving up their own holidays to make Thanksgiving service possible, and a tip — at least 20% — is a great way to show your appreciation at this time.

And remember: if you've got a query or concern about your order, you'll be making the lives of restaurant staff a great deal easier by getting in touch before Thanksgiving itself. "Anything that they can do to be preemptive and to really just ask the question before the day of is super helpful," says Balboa Cafe's Jesse Caetano.

Ordering Thanksgiving dinner to go from a restaurant also means you can stray from a traditional spread -- and try a dish like alaMar's seafood boil (alaMar)

Consider Your Use of Third-Party Apps

There's no way around this: third-party apps take a commission from restaurants.

So if you're intent on 100% of your money going to a restaurant you want to support, calling the establishment direct and placing your order over the phone, then picking up from them in person is the most reliable way to ensure that happens.

That said, for people who are unable to pick up their order in-person — perhaps because their medical history means they're at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19 — restaurants understand that delivery options via apps are more necessary. “These platforms have saved my business” says alaMar's Nelson German of apps like DoorDash, which his restaurant has used for months to enable more widespread takeout orders.

Still Cooking at Home? Consider a Pre-Thanksgiving Order

If you're set on whipping up your own Thanksgiving feast from scratch, but still want to support a local restaurant, why not consider ordering in from a nearby establishment for a pre-Turkey Day dinner?

For example, alaMar's Thanksgiving options are available for pick-up cold for at-home reheating on Thursday, Nov. 26 itself, but are also being offered hot the day before, on Wednesday, November 25, during the restaurant's 3 p.m.-close outdoor service hours. Your options for takeout pick-up will also be far more numerous on that Wednesday, when more restaurants are likely to be open.

Ultimately, restaurants want you to know they're hugely grateful for your support, affirms alaMar's Nelson German. His message to customers: "Just keep supporting local." Restaurants are undoubtedly hurting in 2020, but despite all the restrictions and setbacks, "we want everyone to be safe," he says.

"Even thinking about the business, just having people be safe and healthy and no one else dying from this crazy thing," says German. "It's the most important thing in the world."

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