John Akkaya, owner of Ristorante Don Giovanni in Mountain View, believes in saying thank you. For close to three decades, he has been doing that by offering a complimentary Thanksgiving dinner to anyone who shows up at his restaurant.
Akkaya opened Don Giovanni at 235 Castro St. in 1997. His first restaurant, Burlingame’s Cafe Figaro, has operated since 1989. The Thanksgiving dinners also began in 1989.
"It was a pledge - one day I promised myself that if I ever owned a restaurant, I (would) do it," he said.
Originally from Turkey, Akkaya lived in Chicago before making California his home. A Chicago restaurant that offered free Thanksgiving dinners gave him the idea.
"I thought, I should do that same thing," he said. "I was just newly married, (with a) new baby and new restaurant, and I told my wife I was going to do it for free, and she said, Crazy? When you pledge something, you have to keep your promise."
In 2016, Ristorante Don Giovanni cooked 130 turkeys and served nearly 2,000 customers. The restaurant does not accept donations for the event (though in the early days, an appreciative patron once left a big box of candy and once a sack of potatoes). Volunteers from St. Francis and Mountain View high schools help out all day long.
After a blessing from a local priest, the first shift of diners digs into the feast of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and vegetables. The crowd, which patiently lines up way down the block, doesn’t let up until the day is over.
Sharing the blessings
Author and philanthropist W. Clement Stone once wrote, "If you are really thankful, what do you do? You share." Akkaya is grateful for the opportunity to share what he has, and for all those who help.
"I’m so glad that I have the opportunity to share, and to help somebody. The feeling is unbelievable," he said. "The community has been very good to me - California, Chicago, America - and I’m very fortunate. And I’m very happy that God gave me this. … This is a way to say thank you to the community."
The restaurateur said a lot of people need a place to go on Thanksgiving and feel welcome.
"They come and they belong. … Everybody is treated equally," Akkaya said.
In addition to serving a holiday meal with all of the trimmings to those who might not otherwise enjoy such a feast, it also has become a tradition with many who could make - or buy - their own.
"It’s not only homeless people - a lot of my regular customers come. A lot of families come," Akkaya said. "The best part of it (is that) everybody comes. All different kinds of people - it’s so amazing. And when I look at it, I say, God bless America - it’s only in America you get all these people together and nobody fights. … God bless America, really."
For more information, visit dongiovannis.com. ❄