Greek immigrant resumes holiday tradition in Ohio

ROCKY RIVER, Ohio — A Greek immigrant family grateful for opportunities in America resumed a quarter-century tradition Thursday by offering free Thanksgiving dinners at its restaurant, welcoming anyone who wanted a holiday meal and company.

Michaels Family Restaurant prepared 2,500 pounds of turkey for the annual crowd that often tops 1,000 people in this upscale Cleveland suburb alongside Lake Erie. The Petrakis family invited regular customers, the homeless, jobless and seniors.

The dinner marked a return to a holiday tradition for Michael Petrakis, 58, and his family. The restaurant served free dinners for 25 years but skipped last year because he had traveled to spend time with his dying mother in Crete.

His mother insisted that the tradition resume and Petrakis agreed, dedicating the 26th dinner in her memory. I promised myself and I promised to her, next year I will do it, he said.

With a family, home and business, Petrakis said, I live the American dream and the free dinner is a chance to show gratitude.

The country is so generous here. If you work hard they will give you the opportunity, Petrakis said in a holiday eve interview punctuated by him greeting diners, many by name.

Bob Onyak, 65, of Amherst, had holiday dinner plans at his daughters but added a stop at the restaurant for the holiday environment he has savored in the past.

I enjoy being with the people here and the family atmosphere and the food is good, he said.

An added plus for Onyak: regular customers and others were welcome, meaning there was no stigma for those who came because they were unable to afford a Thanksgiving dinner or didnt have anyone to share it with. I think it makes a difference, he said.

Rocky River, with upscale lakeview homes and a poverty level below 2 percent, might seem an unlikely location for a free holiday dinner, but the community has a caring attitude and the dinner shows that, said Carole Calladine, city director of senior services.

I know this has been a real down economy for many people, she said.

The dinner reflects Rocky Rivers hometown traditions, Mayor Pamela Bobst said.

The connections that a resident feels between themselves and their community are those traditions that link us together, year after year and generation after generation, she said.

Elsewhere Thursday, St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Clevelands Tremont neighborhood prepared 6,000 meals to be served at eight locations, with another 6,000 delivered by volunteers.

In Cincinnati, Our Daily Bread offered a sit-down dinner with enough food to serve more than 500. The soup kitchen had more volunteers than they could use on Thanksgiving and had to turn some away, according to Paul Miller, development director.