BRATTLEBORO — For three decades, the free public Thanksgiving dinner at downtown Burlington's Sweetwaters American Bistro surmounted countless challenges, from finding enough tables to seat an annual count of 1,000 people to switching to takeout during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It never crossed my mind not to do something,” longtime owner David Melincoff said of all the hurdles.
Then Melincoff sold the restaurant this year and retired, bringing an end - at least temporarily - to a 31-year tradition.
“With Covid and not being able to get enough staff,” he said, “it's different now than it was.”
Burlington is not the only Vermont community to stop hosting a free Thanksgiving dinner. Brattleboro and Montpelier also have traded sit-down meals open to all for limited takeout options for people most in need.
“We're really excited to provide Thanksgiving-themed meals, but unfortunately we don't have the funding to be able to do anything more than our normal distribution,” said Amanda Witman, who works with the Vermont Everyone Eats program and, specifically, its Brattleboro branch.
Brattleboro and Montpelier would have marked the 50th anniversary of their free public Thanksgiving dinners this year if the pandemic had not brought changes.
In Brattleboro, volunteers once fed more than 500 people at a public event. This week, the local Everyone Eats program will provide turkey dinners to people most in need.
“Most of those meals are being distributed through community organizations to their clients,” Witman said.
In Montpelier, the Washington County Youth Service Bureau used to offer table service for 800 people. This week, the National Life Group and its cafeteria provider, Sodexo, will give out free takeout meals to those who make reservations.
Before Covid, Sweetwaters hosted an annual Burlington event that featured 1,500 pounds of turkey and 50 gallons of gravy served on formal place settings.
“It's not a burden at all but a nice reminder of what you should be grateful for,” Melincoff said at the time. “A lot of the people who come in will tell you it's the only time they get to sit down in a restaurant and be waited on.”
Sweetwaters turned to takeout in 2020 and 2021 before selling its Church Street Marketplace building this year to The Farmhouse Group, which plans on relocating its nearby Pascolo Ristorante there.
With the space under renovation, The Farmhouse Group is donating 1,000 meals for distribution by local social service agencies and committed to continuing some form of Thanksgiving generosity long term, owner Jed Davis said.
Some places are returning to sit-down events. In Rutland, the Loyal Order of Moose will continue its half-century Thanksgiving dinner tradition with an in-person gathering Thursday - although it required participants to sign up last week so organizers could anticipate demand.
Anti-hunger advocates are encouraging people in other parts of the state to contact their local food shelves or to call 2-1-1 to learn about other holiday meal options.