Seats at the table

Imagine! and Zolo partner to provide free Thanksgiving dinner service for people with disabilities and their families

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Courtesy of Imagine

At its best, the restaurant industry provides places where communities come together and memories are made. For all the things the restaurant industry can be — agents of societal change, regional employment hubs, shrines to culinary artists — at the end of that day, it’s a business of hospitality and service. 

Nowhere else will that be clearer than at Zolo Southwestern Grill this Thanksgiving.

For the last 14 years, without much fanfare from Big Red F (of which Zolo is a cornerstone), the waiters, bartenders, hosts, cooks and chefs at Zolo have been serving families of people with developmental disabilities a free meal. It’s a collaboration with Imagine!, a group that has provided resources and services to families with people with developmental disabilities in Boulder and Broomfield counties for more than 50 years.

“For a significant portion of [these families], it would be very difficult to have this kind of meal,” says Fred Hobbs, of Imagine!.

The chance to sit down for Thanksgiving with our friends and family, and enjoy whatever culinary traditions we’ve come to enjoy, is one many of us probably take for granted. For many of the families Imagine! serves, the opportunity to sit down for any meal can often be a challenge. 

“We all know the holidays can add stress, and something like a Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a lot going on there,” Hobbs says. “What our families need and want most of all is a little time for themselves because depending on the individual disability, it can be something where you are taking care of someone 24 hours, 7 days a week. To get that respite, to get that break, is such a huge benefit for them. Something that allows them to, maybe for this brief moment, not have to worry about some of these challenges and enjoy Thanksgiving like so many of our families.”

The meal is traditional, turkey and the fixings, with a little bit of Zolo’s southwestern flair added in. But the food is almost beside the point. It’s the community and the Zolo staff’s commitment to service that makes this event so special.

“The staff who work it, they give up their time, but I think it adds to the family atmosphere overall, because it’s no longer your standard transactional restaurant experience. These folks are there because they want to be there. They want to be part of making someone’s Thanksgiving a little more special,” Hobbs says. “It’s almost this cumulative, snowballing effect — everybody is there for the right reason. They’re incredibly generous to give up the holiday and to do it so many times.”

Big Red F owner Dave Query really doesn’t want praise heaped on him for hosting the event, but it’s worth noting the event started when he, serving on the Imagine! board, worked with the group to further address one of its key tenets: to provide opportunities to those with developmental disabilities that everyone else in the community enjoys. 

“[Query] recognized that this time of year can be tough for a lot of people but for people with disabilities and their families. There are challenges all the time, financial, physical, emotional challenges,” Hobbs says. “And I think he just wanted to do something where maybe one day that family didn’t have to worry about anything and celebrate.”

The meal at Zolo is also one of the few opportunities, Hobbs says, for these families to enjoy a meal out at a restaurant. Whether it’s a lack of funds, or transportation, or time, or if there is concern that the family will somehow disturb the restaurant or its diners, families with people with disabilities don’t often get to just drop in for a bite at a local restaurant.

“The way disability manifests itself, there are behavioral challenges that make going out in public a challenge. This is a group that’s already understanding and are aware of what those challenges mean,” Hobbs says.

This year, the Imagine!/Zolo Thanksgiving meal will include 250 people, which includes families with people with disabilities of all ages. So cherished is the opportunity that signups for the dinner reached capacity three hours after they were made available.

This is what service and hospitality look like. For everything that the restaurant industry can be, it doesn’t get any better than this.