Every Christmas Day since the 1970s, the Stamos family of Kalamazoo has had folks over for dinner — hundreds of them. That’s because each year the Stamoses, who own Blue Dolphin in downtown Kalamazoo, offer a free Christmas dinner at their restaurant for all comers.
The free Christmas dinners started at the Rex Café, which was opened in 1940 at 432 S. Burdick St. and run by Steve Stamos’ great uncle until he died in 1978. The Rex was then operated by his nephew Pete Stamos, who sold it to his son, Steve, in 1990. Unable to buy the property where the Rex Café was located, Steve moved the restaurant to where it is today, on the corner of Cedar and Burdick streets, and renamed it Blue Dolphin.
The tradition of offering the free Christmas dinner followed Stamos to Blue Dolphin. From noon to 3:30 p.m. on Christmas Day, Steve, his family, staff and volunteers serve a free steak, prime rib or turkey dinner to anyone in the community who walks in the door. Stamos says that they serve about 1,500 people each year, 50 percent of whom he estimates are homeless or needy.
How did this Christmas tradition start?
When I was a kid, we would have our Christmas morning, and then by 2 or 3 p.m. my dad would have some of his employees and customers from the old Rex come over. He’d feed them, and they’d all get a present. When I was 11 or 12 years old, there were 10 to 15 people; when I was 13 or 14, there were more; and by the time I was 19, there was a houseful, so my mother suggested we open the Rex up and just serve a little free meal for any customers and employees that wanted to come. The first year, we served over 100 people, which was nice. And then we started doing it every year.
By the time the Rex closed in 1990, we had served 600 people in a day. When we moved over to the Dolphin, we kept that tradition. Being a much bigger restaurant, the most we ever served here was 2,200 in four hours.
Who tends to come to this dinner?
I would say 50/50 between needy or homeless people and people that want to come out and just be with other people. We also have 150 volunteers that come in and a lot of them have similar issues — they can’t get home or they’re alone, so they come down and volunteer and that fills a void for them. They get here at 11:30 a.m., and they’re here until 3:30 or 4 p.m. and they feel very good about themselves.
How does running the dinner make you feel?
The feeling of a little old lady giving you a hug and saying “If I hadn’t come out today, nobody would’ve said ‘Merry Christmas’” just warms your heart and makes you feel good. There’s no other explanation than that. We’re all so busy — we would like to have a little time to ourselves on the holidays because we’re with family, running an event and such, but we don’t realize how many people don’t have that. They are home by themselves. Hence, why suicide rates are so high during the holidays.
What’s Christmas like for your family?
I have a 30-year-old daughter and a 29-year-old son, and this Christmas dinner is all they’ve ever known. They have Christmas at our restaurant because we’ve done it for longer than they’ve been alive, and they don’t know anything different.
Are your children involved in the business?
My son (Pete) played football in Chicago for five years, went overseas and played a year and then came back here and decided to be part of the business. He’s running Papa Pete’s with music, pool leagues and hand-tossed homemade pizzas, so it’s really its own entity now because of what he’s done.
Knowing many of the folks who come for the Christmas dinner are homeless or in need, how did you react in August when the city of Kalamazoo moved a homeless camp from Bronson Park to a site across the street from your restaurant?
There really wasn’t any tension. I talked to them every day when they were here. I felt a lot of them needed help. They didn’t quite know how to express it, and so this (protesting by camping in Bronson Park) is what they did. I thought the city handled themselves pretty well, trying to understand the homeless people’s needs. We’re figuring out what we can do for them, and that’s going to take time. The only problem that we have is that sometimes people don’t have patience.
— Interviewed by Adam Rayes