Hickory house

Line cook Joel Orellana checks on turkeys slow-roasting in the rotisserie smoker behind Hickory House on Wednesday.

Hickory House general manager Marino Celso estimates that it takes upwards of 40 people to pull off the community Thanksgiving that feeds about 1,000 locals ever year.

“My favorite part is when we open. When we open, people are so excited. Then, it’s crazy, messy mess,” he laughed. “It’s fun. We have a good time. It’s about Thanksgiving.”

It’s a custom that Paul Dioguardi enthusiastically adopted when he bought the Main Street staple in 1998.

“This tradition has been going on for over 30 years, but I have been a part of it for the last 25 years,” he wrote in an email while traveling in Australia. “We are smoking 56 turkeys, 200 pounds of roast beef, 500 pounds of mashed potatoes and all the other rational fixins.”

After a quarter century of organizing one of the biggest free feasts in town, the Hickory House staff knows a thing or two about how much grub is needed to feed eager mouths. Still, Celso said he and his crew have upped the ante this year in anticipation of the crowds.

“All the people, they need to be here early,” he suggested. “You never know — last year, the food was gone by 2:30, 3 o’clock. We had a lot of people. This year, we have more turkeys!”

While the shindig officially starts at noon, staff and volunteers will congregate hours earlier. Everyone works in two-hour shifts and of course enjoys the same community and food as the people they serve until said food runs out. In Celso’s case, it’s truly a family affair.

“For example, in my case, my wife and my kid, they’re going to help,” he said with a smile.

While the event — “open to everyone!!!” Dioguardi’s email emphasized — is free, donations are suggested for those who can afford to offer something. This year, all proceeds will benefit the Buddy Program, and several “little buddies” will be present to thank attendees in person for their support, executive director Lindsay Lofaro noted.

“We have three families of little buddies who are going to be there helping with their parents. We have one buddy-pair — a little buddy with their big buddy — going for a couple hours,” she said. “It’s a very generous donation that we get, and I think most people are just so excited to be there. It’s the spirit of the holidays.”

The Buddy Program has been on the receiving end of the event’s financial proceeds in the past, but it’s been several years.

“They’re so generous. We used to do this at the Hickory House for a long time, and then I think they were actually benefiting a different nonprofit for the last four or five years,” Lofaro said. “I think it’s just been a mutual relationship for a long time, and because of our longevity and their longevity, it’s just worked really well, but [Dioguardi] has spread it out to other nonprofits.”

Dioguardi confirmed Lofaro’s assessment.

“We try to change it up and pick a different nonprofit,” he said.

There’s no dearth of good causes in the area, but the Buddy Program in particular has earned a special place in his heart.

“Buddy Program has been our pick several times throughout the years. It’s a great program for the children in the valley, and I personally love to support nonprofits that help the children of the valley,” Dioguardi continued.

At its outset, the Buddy Program focused on facilitating healthy mentoring relationships. But over its 46-year history in the Roaring Fork Valley, the organization grew its offerings to include“professional case management, free activities for Buddy Pairs throughout the year, extracurricular activity scholarships for youth, therapeutic counseling and other services,” its website says. “Program evaluations demonstrate that the Buddy Program has helped our little buddies in areas of self-esteem, decision making, academics and relationships with friends and family.”

Last year, the Buddy Program worked with more than 500 families and nearly 150 adult volunteer “big buddies.”

None of that would be possible without the continued support from the valley’s communities, Lofaro underscored.

“We’re just so grateful to the community in so many ways, and this is just another great example of that,” she said of the Thanksgiving undertaking. “We’re so grateful to the staff at Hick House that work so hard to make it so great.”

For Dioguardi, he’s just looking forward to another successful day of good company and good food in his restaurant — and “hopefully even sign up a few new buddies,” he added.

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.