Salute e Vita Ristorante in the Richmond Marina will be closed to the public until 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving. That's because owner Menbere Aklilu will be using the facility to feed some less fortunate fellow residents earlier in the day.

She expects more than 1,000 hungry diners, many arriving from homeless shelters on buses she arranged, to feast on soup, turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie before leaving with a coupon good for 10 carryout meals. ("People don't need to eat just on Thanksgiving," she said.)

This will be the biggest gathering in the three years she's held the event and the latest reminder, she said, of all she has to be thankful for. Once upon a time she, too, was homeless and dependent on the kindness of others. This is one of several ways she chooses to share her blessings.

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia grabs a fork before serving dessert at Salute E Vita Ristorante where a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner with
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia grabs a fork before serving dessert at Salute E Vita Ristorante where a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner with white tablecloth service was offered to those less fortunate in Richmond, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. (Karl Mondon/Staff)

Her story begins in Ethiopia, where she was orphaned at the age of 10 after seeing her mother gunned down by an angry customer at her restaurant. She was raised by her older brother Messle and worked briefly as an actress before being lured to Rome by a director who promised her stardom but had other intentions. Her relationship with him became abusive, as evidenced by a scar on her face where she was burned with a lit cigarette.

Homeless, destitute and pregnant at age 22, she took refuge in a women's shelter.

"It was run by Mother Teresa's nuns," she said. "I gave birth to my son (Christian) in the shelter."

From that unlikely background, Aklilu -- "Menbe" to her friends -- summoned the will to restart her life, earn a living and move to the United States. "It's a great country -- the land of opportunity," she said. "If you work, you can be somebody there."

Her nieces in Oakland welcomed her to the East Bay. A chance meeting with Salute e Vita's owners brought her the offer of a $7-an-hour hostess job in 1995. The rest of her success story traces to hard work, ambition and good fortune.

Aklilu had worked her way up to manager by the time the restaurant was put up for sale in 2002, when one of her regular customers worried aloud about her future.

"He said, 'What's going to happen to you?'" she said. "I said, 'If the new owners like me, I'll keep working. If they don't, I'll look for a job.'

"He said, 'I'd like to help you. I'll loan you the money, and you can buy the restaurant.'"

Aklilu repaid a five-year loan in 11 months, slowly adding staff (she has 28 employees) and growing her business. She later asked her benefactor how she could possibly repay his generosity.

"He said, 'Pass it along. Do for others.' I'll never forget that."

Aklilu, who picked up the entire tab for her first Thanksgiving feast, says many contributors now make it possible. Vendors contribute food. Local businesses provide tables and chairs. Customers donate cash. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and police Chief Chris Magnus are among many dignitaries who regularly take part in the community gathering that all began with her vision.

It's not her only vision. In the months ahead, she plans to hire at least five homeless persons from local shelters to work as busboys, dishwashers or waiters.

"I'll bet you they will be the best employees," she said. "Being homeless is not a crime. I was homeless once, but I was lucky. I got a chance."

For Menbe Aklilu, the spirit of Thanksgiving isn't restricted to just one day.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.