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'It Means Something Special': Harbor Docks Celebrates 24th Annual Thanksgiving Dinner

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
A Habitat For Humanity volunteer serves plates of food at the annual Thanksgiving event at Harbor Docks.

Thanksgiving at Harbor Docks is a 24-year tradition for people from all walks of life.

By 10 a.m., a line snakes around the parking lot of the Destin restaurant in anticipation of the 11 a.m. opening. And for the next eight hours, restaurant staff and volunteers serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal for free.

"We provide food for everyone — no questions asked, no charge," said Harbor Docks owner Charles Morgan. "Our approach is this: we've been in the restaurant business for a long time and have made a nice living, and for us to give food away one day a year...it's not that big a deal."

The idea for the Thanksgiving meal came from longtime employee Annie Jones, who noticed 24 years ago that no other restaurants were open on Thanksgiving. Over time, there were more options to dine out for the holiday. None of them are as popular as Harbor Docks as the restaurants serves around 2,000 people in just one day.

"I didn't know it would get to be this big," Jones said earlier this week as she prepped food. "Knowing that there's some people that won't be able to have a good meal...knowing we can provide that for them it gives you a good feeling."  

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
A line of people wait outside Harbor Docks for the 24th annual Thanksgiving meal.

Charles and his son, Eddie, credit the event's popularity to good service and good food, notably Jones' cornbread dressing (otherwise known as stuffing). She said the recipe comes from her grandmother with a little bit of "this and that" added in.

Volunteers start preparing for Thanksgiving about two weeks before the big day chopping vegetables and making cornbread for the famous dressing. When it's all said and done, the kitchen prepares 500 pounds of ham, 2,300 pounds of whole turkeys, 150 pounds of sweet potato casserole and 486 pounds of green beans. 

This year, Harbor Docks prepared for even more meals since many Hurricane Michael evacuees have come to stay in Destin.

Panama City residents Joanne James and her husband Kevin were among those lined up outside the door. After losing nearly everything to Hurricane Michael, James said she still feels thankful.

"Kevin had to go to the hospital, so we've been over here at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center," she said. "He just got out yesterday. We walked the docks this morning, God gave him the blessing to get out by Thanksgiving. Today, we're thankful for food to eat, a roof over our head and our community — people like this."

Randy Holloway and his friend Georgia Goodin said they would have nowhere to go on Thanksgiving without Harbor Docks. The two don't have much to their names but "a couple of bicycles and two sleeping bags," Holloway said. 

For Goodin, it's more than a hot meal, but a place to be for the holiday. 

"It warms my heat," she said choking back tears. "It means something special." 

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
Volunteers work hard to plate meals to keep the lines moving fast.

Brent Tucker and his family have made Harbor Docks part of their holiday tradition. His three-year-old son Benjamin raved about the sweet potatoes.

"It's like grandmother's cooking," he said after finishing his meal. "We wouldn't see ourselves spending thanksgiving anywhere else."

Eddie Morgan said he recognizes the regulars who come each year — some as many as 20 years.

"It's good seeing familiar faces," he said.

November is not a profitable month for Harbor Docks. Nonetheless, it's busy between the Thanksgiving meal and the annual Take-A-Kid-Fishing Day, where around 300 children get a free fishing trip on a charter boat. Nearly the whole month is dedicated to giving back.  

"For me, personally, this is the best month of the year," Charles said. "This is what we do best. This is what I'm proudest of."