Goldman Sachs' Thanksgiving: Garbage Duty

They received billions in a taxpayer-financed bailout, returned to soaring profits and recently set aside nearly $40 billion in compensation and bonuses. Goldman Sachs has a lot to be thankful for.

Of course, the same things they're thankful for have also caused Goldman to become one of the most vilified financial firms on Wall Street. And perhaps because of that, Goldman employees are trying to give back - volunteering for garbage duty at a charity dinner for thousands of hungry New Yorkers.

The Salvation Army plans to serve 10,000 free dinners across the city this Thanksgiving - meals planned by a star chef and cooked by one of New York's ritziest caterers.

The number of meals is 10 times as many as last year and come at a time when more and more Americans are struggling to put food on the table.

The turkey dinner will be prepared by Great Performances, a catering company that stages banquets for the grand ballroom of The Plaza. Leading the culinary team is star chef Marc Spooner, a winner of the Food Network's "Chopped" TV contest and the caterer's chef de cuisine.

Three hundred employees of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Wall Street's richest firm, have volunteered for the holiday feast and will be tasked with taking out the garbage.

"Goldman wants their volunteers to sweat," joked Spooner, who at 6-foot-6 towered above a recent tasting session for the meal at Great Performances' kitchens in the SoHo neighborhood.

Goldman Sachs said the firm supports the effort, but referred all questions to the Salvation Army. The company's volunteers were not available for comment and their names would not be released, the Salvation Army said.

The investment bank is , with angry critics pointing to huge employee bonuses expected at year's end as evidence of the kind of greed that triggered the recession. A year ago, the firm received billions in federal bailout money. So far this year, it has set aside $16.7 billion for compensation and another $23 billion for bonuses.

That's drawn the ire of lawmakers, taxpayers and, most recently, Goldman's own investors. According to a Wall Street Journal report ($) Friday, some of the company's largest shareholders have asked it to scale down bonuses - not because they look obscene during difficult economic times but because they're cutting into investor profits.

Despite the soaring profits, earnings per share estimates for 2009 come in 22 percent lower than 2007 due to Goldman issuing more than 100 million new shares this past year to raise capital. Investors reason if the bonus money is slashed, the company's per-share earnings and stock price would improve.

The Journal notes shareholders are also worried that Goldman is employing an accounting trick to make per-employee salaries appear lower than they actually are. The firm is counting temporary employees and consultants to the total work force, driving average salaries down from $775,000 to $717,000 in 2009.

But, at least on Thanksgiving, bonuses and accounting practices will take a back seat to charity.

Spooner recently joined dozens of volunteer food professionals to figure out how to serve 10,000 meals simultaneously at 10 Salvation Army community centers from Brooklyn and Harlem to the Bronx.

Standing around a long steel table, they took notes over aluminum pans filled with herb-roasted turkey breasts from Pennsylvania and the traditional sides - stuffing, gravy, yams, green beans, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls and pie.

Great Performances' CEO, Liz Neumark, will help out in the Bronx with her 14-year-old son. Her elite catering company's first such effort was last year, serving 1,000 meals.

"These were regular, ordinary people, just like us, who were hungry," she said. "And you think, 'there but for the grace of God."'

As more Americans lose their jobs, the free turkey dinners are only a tiny sliver of the food needed to satisfy the nation's soaring hunger.

More than 49 million Americans - one in seven households - struggled to put enough food on the table in 2008. That's the highest rate since the federal Department of Agriculture began tracking food security in 1995.

Great Performances is assembling the meals at cost, forgoing any profits; private contributions are covering basic expenses.

The New York Salvation Army is itself struggling, laying off 100 employees of the 130-year-old nonprofit organization currently helping about 600,000 people in need. It was holding an event in Times Square on Friday to start a $100 million anti-poverty fundraising campaign.