KALAMAZOO, MI – The tradition of serving free Thanksgiving meals began in 1977 for Greek immigrants Theo and Stacy Skartsiaris at their eponymous restaurant Theo and Stacy’s in downtown Kalamazoo, according to their daughter Betty Peristeridis who spoke to The National Herald. The family business soon grew to three locations in Michigan, she told TNH.
Though Theo Skartsiaris passed away in 1994, his wife Stacy, 72, and the rest of the family who joined the business, keep up the tradition of serving the free Thanksgiving meal not only for the homeless, but for anyone who would like to share in the fellowship and holiday spirit at the restaurant.
Mrs. Skartsiaris said, “We don’t ask any questions. It’s not necessary to be homeless. A lot of times people around the holidays, they’re very lonely, and they like to be around other people,” mlive.com reported, adding that “we’re blessed we can do it.” Her late husband saw a man eating out of the garbage and was inspired to start the tradition for Thanksgiving. Over 800 pounds of food including turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables, gravy, and stuffing were cooked for the meal, according to mlive.com.
Peristeridis also told TNH about the Kalamazoo Greek Festival the family founded, noting that it is “one of the few Greek festivals that is privately run and not a church-run event, that allows us the flexibility to market our event to our non-Greek friends in our community. Many festivals are geared towards us, the Greek community, and our goal is to promote our culture and heritage to the surrounding area, so we take a totally different spin on the Greek fest. We probably get 40-45,000 people over the weekend through our doors and maybe ten percent are Greek, most are non-Greek, so it’s pretty impressive how many people we can impact in a weekend, that’s assuming the weather’s good, of course. We’ve been doing the Greek Fest for 43 years, we didn’t do it this year because we have to secure a new venue. It’s a pretty neat event, my mom does all the cooking, she makes all the pastitsio, moussaka, dolmades, everything, handmade by her.”
When asked about the family, Peristeridis told TNH, “My parents were originally in New York and had a restaurant there, but then moved to Kalamazoo in 1973 and opened one of the first Greek restaurants here and from there my parents really tried to expose a small community to Greek culture and the food. We’ve been really fortunate because they’ve been really great at embracing us and embracing our culture, so it’s been fantastic.”
She continued, “Between the free Thanksgiving meals and the Kalamazoo Greek Fest, we do quite a lot of different things in our local community to give back, because that’s the most important thing. My parents came here super, super poor, as most immigrants did, they instilled in us that you have to give back to the community that supports you throughout the year, if you don’t, you’re not serving the purpose. It’s been an amazing run here.
“Dad was from Skoteini, close to Argos and Nemea, and mom is from Kalamata. My dad started as a dishwasher in a local restaurant when he moved to New York, my mom worked in a factory sewing buttons on, piecemeal, in the Garment District, so they really understood what it was to not have, and then when God blesses you with all these great things, it’s your obligation to give back to the community, so yesterday [on Thanksgiving], I think we served about 1500 people at our downtown restaurant and it is a humbling experience.
“My sister, Joanna, and I, between the two of us, have seven kids and it’s really important that the kids are there so they understand how fortunate we are. The people who come in are not necessarily poor or homeless, but lonely, and that’s heartbreaking to see that in your community, people who don’t have anyone to talk to or to be with and we Greeks love to talk so we’ll sit down and chat with them, so it’s a really humbling experience. For the most part, we as a culture, we tend to be from large families, very interconnected, and that’s not the case for everybody, and that human interaction and connection, people just want to know that you care, and that you’re willing to listen, I think that’s the most important thing that we do on Thanksgiving.
“We tend to shelter our kids for the most part and they don’t see the other side of how life is. My kids range in age from 8-12, and my sister’s are 8-14, all of them go, they all volunteer, they work in the kitchen, they wash dishes, they’ll do whatever we need to do.
“We had a nice anonymous donor who gave us $400 this year for hats and gloves and we were able to buy almost double that because the company we bought them from sold them to us at cost which was just fantastic so we’re able to impact people outside of just a meal, that they would be able to be warm this winter.
“We don’t take food donations or monetary donations for the food, that’s our contribution to our community, but this gentleman came to us and wanted to help, and here’s this other place that we can outreach with hats, gloves, and scarves, because it obviously gets cold in the winter and we’re approaching that season.”
The family’s three restaurants serve Greek and American cuisine, Peristeridis told TNH, noting that “we serve all the traditional Greek food, my mom makes all of it. She’s 72 and she goes in at 7 o’clock and makes all the specials whatever it is and then she goes home at 9: 30 at night, she’s very actively involved in the restaurant.”
“That’s what my mom knows, you go to work, you do what you have to do, you do the right thing, and you’ll reap the rewards, not just financial, but personal rewards as life goes on.”
Stacy Skartsiaris with her famous koulourakia. Photo: Courtesy of the Skartsiaris family
When asked about next year’s Greek Fest, Peristeridis told TNH that the festival usually takes place the first weekend in June, noting that since the event caters to such a diverse group, “after 9 PM we switch gears and put on a very large music festival, we’ve had the Gin Blossoms, Rock Springfield, 38 Special, so we have a massive concert, that entices people to come to Greek Fest, try our food, expose them to that, but then they get a concert at the same time. During the day, of course, we have the Greek music, Greek dancers, we have 45 belly dancers who come in and do a full performance, it’s pretty cool. We have to find a venue for next year.”
Dr. George Liakeas, President of the Hellenic Medical Society of New York, also spoke to TNH about the Skartsiaris family, his mother and Stacy Skartsiaris are sisters, noting that he is proud of the family’s accomplishments and their dedication to giving back to the community. “My aunt and uncle were proud to be Greek-Americans (much like my aunt’s cousin Judge John Manos). I am most proud that my cousins have continued embracing and supporting all things Greek and have passed on those values to their children as well. Even in a little city in mid-America the olive does not fall far from the tree and for that we all should be proud,” he said.
More information about Theo & Stacy’s Restaurants is available online: theoandstacys.com.
Stacy Skartsiaris preparing food. Photo: Courtesy of the Skartsiaris family
The crowd at the Kalamazoo Greek Fest. Photo: Courtesy of the Skartsiaris family
Theo Skartsiaris in traditional foustanella. Photo: Courtesy of the Skartsiaris family
Photo: Courtesy of the Skartsiaris family