In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, customers walking through the grocery on 18th and Mission streets may have taken note of a pleasantly unusual smell emanating from Duc Loi’s deli counter.

The sweet, warm aroma certainly isn’t coming from the market’s usual Banh Mi sandwiches.

“We are baking our famous apple cake that we make every year for Thanksgiving,” said Duc Loi’s owner, Amanda Ngo, beaming. By Tuesday afternoon, she and her group of volunteers had already used about 150 pounds of flour in their baking endeavor. “That’s a lot of cake!”

Still, Ngo is worried that it may not be enough “to go around” among the roughly 1,000 people she expects to serve at her annual free Thanksgiving feast this year.

“In previous years I felt bad because people could only have a tiny slice of cake. So this year, we tried to make more so we can cut the cake a little bigger for each person,” she said.

Though the feast started small in 2008, Ngo is prepared for a large turnout – each year, she has witnessed the number of people in need who arrive for the meal grow by about 200 people. 

For the seventh consecutive year, Ngo called on her family, friends, neighbors and fellow Mission businesses to help her host a warm and filling Thanksgiving lunch for those in her community who may otherwise go hungry.

Aside from cake, Ngo will be serving green beans and carrots, yam, bread, soda and water. She also prepared plastic bags of apples, bananas, and other snacks that can be easily taken home.

But most importantly, those who will join a queue at noon on Thursday on the corner of 18th Street and Mission streets will be snagging at least one piece of turkey, prepared by “two famous chefs,” promised Ngo.

“We are lucky because Anthony (Myint) and Chris from Mission Chinese Food volunteered to help me with the turkey,” she said – and with 40 birds to prepare, the expert help was desperately needed.

As Ngo distributed slices of the warm cake to her helpers, she points to “the most important guy in the store this week”– Albert Yip,  a customer who, for the past three years, has been tasked with carving the turkey.

“One year, I came into the store and saw that Amanda had like 7-10 cases of uncut turkey, and Thanksgiving was right around the corner,” recalled Yip. He immediately asked if he could help out. “I took off my jacket and she gave me an apron and I started cutting away at all the turkeys. Now, I help every year, and I feel great contributing to the community. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Ngo and three of her friends sat on crates behind the Deli on Monday afternoon, taking a break from washing, peeling, and chopping.

“I’ve been peeling apples since last Wednesday,” said Theresa Mullen, who after seeing a sign by the registers asking for volunteers, decided to help with the Thanksgiving feast preparations this  year.

“Five days later, it’s been lots of apples and lots of fun,” she said. The Mission District resident added that every one should try to give back to the community when given the chance.

Volunteer Kathy Foster and her husband, Steve Lawrence, agreed. They are regular customers of Ngo’s, and also stepped in last Thanksgiving to help.

“We do it for the community and for Amanda, because she’s so fabulous,” said Foster. “I came to Duc Loi for the sandwiches initially. We would always talk, so I got to know her story, and it’s quite remarkable.”

Ngo and her husband, Howard, came from Vietnam as refugees in 1979. Though neighbors in Vietnam, Howard first settled in Georgia before moving to San Francisco, where Amanda was already living.

“We fell in love, but first, we opened a business together,” said Ngo.

Since 1996, they have served the Mission community with affordable and healthy food options. “The community loves and supports us, so we want to give that support back to them.”

Every year, the Ngos sponsor the Thanksgiving feast entirely from their own pockets – but Ngo isn’t really counting.

“Everybody keeps asking me how much I spend every year for this, but I really have no answer. I’m not concentrating on spending,” said Ngo. “I’m concentrating on ‘how are we doing this year? Are we going to have enough green beans for everyone?'”