Free Thanksgiving meal a 40-year tradition at Old Town Café


About 22 years ago, Bekah Zener was a single mom with two young kids and lots of schoolwork from her classes at Western Washington University. Thanksgiving was approaching, but her kids would be staying with their father in Alaska, so Zener was feeling sorry for herself.

Then a friend offered some advice that bugged her a bit but also made good sense.

"You might want to think about somebody else," her friend advised.

So Zener volunteered to wash dishes at the annual Thanksgiving community meal hosted by Old Town Café. She washed dishes all day while dozens of other volunteers served roasted turkey, cleared tables and visited with the hundreds of people grateful for a free holiday meal made from scratch, including the gravy.

"It was the most wonderful Thanksgiving I had ever had," said Zener, now a special education teacher at Lummi Nation Schools. "It's when you really feel like you're part of a community."

Today, Old Town Café, located in downtown Bellingham at 316 W. Holly St., is hosting its free Thanksgiving meal for the 40th year.

"I have a core group of people who have been helping me over the years," said Diane Brainard, who worked at the café for six years before buying it in 1995. "That has made such a difference."

Old Town workers have Thanksgiving off. To feed some 400 to 450 community members, about 50 volunteers arrive, half in the morning, half later in the day, to work in the kitchen, bus tables and serve turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, side dishes and dessert.

Earlier this week, about 20 other volunteers showed up Tuesday and Wednesday night to chop onions, peel potatoes, tear up loaves of bread for stuffing, and do other prep work.

Local longshoremen donate the turkeys, about 28 of them; local grocers and food suppliers donate assorted foodstuffs.

"Pretty much anybody I ask donates something," Brainard said. "Everybody steps up to the plate."

Old Town workers cook the turkeys ahead of time.

"We have a turkey cooking factory for like three days," Brainard said.

At St. Paul's Episcopal Church, members sign up to provide a total of 30 pumpkin or fruit pies, 30 side dishes and cookies, said Mary Horton, who oversees the operation for the church.

"Whatever we don't have is what I usually do," she said. "If we need more pies, I'll make a pie."

Folks at St. Paul's have helping for 12 years, maybe longer, Horton said.

"It's been a real privilege for us to do it," she said.

Sometimes, random community members bring in side dishes or a warm pie because they want to help, too.

"It's all by donation, all by volunteers, and it goes off without a hitch," Zener said.


If this Thanksgiving is like other Thanksgivings at Old Town, people will line up an hour or two before the doors open at 10 a.m. If they do, volunteers will be waiting for them with hot coffee and something to nosh on, perhaps cookies or doughnuts.

"The whole idea is to make everyone feel like this is all about them," Zener said.

Homeless people show up, to be sure, but so do many other people. Single people. College students. Longtime café customers. Parents with kids. Friends and family of volunteers. People who just want to share in the good feelings.

It's crowded, but people don't mind.

"Everyone who's there is happy and positive," said longtime volunteer Wendy Bevan, who owns a hair salon in Fairhaven. "That sounds too Pollyanna, but it's really true."

People eat to the accompaniment of local musicians who sign up for 40-minute slots. Chad Petersen, a guitarist when he's not working as a computer technician at Western Washington University, lines up the entertainment and loans his Bose sound system for the occasion.

"If everybody else would take care of each other like we do on Thanksgiving, it would be a better world," he said.


Thanksgiving Day

• Old Town Café , 316 W. Holly St., Bellingham, serves its 40th annual free Thanksgiving dinner for everyone from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

• Five Columns Restaurant, 1301 E. Maple St., Bellingham, offers traditional Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings served free to those 65 and over from noon to 2 p.m. Restaurant open noon to 8 p.m. for either the Thanksgiving meal or its regular dinner menu at usual prices. Call 360-676-9900 for reservations.

• American Legion Family Post 86 will serve a free community Thanksgiving feast with a traditional menu from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Blaine Senior Center, 763 G. St. Event is open to everyone.

• Good Burger's fifth annual free Thanksgiving dinner will be in a new location - Lee's Drive-In at the corner of James and Alabama streets in Bellingham- this year. Traditional Thanksgiving meal served noon to 3 p.m. (despite the name, Lee's has lots of indoor seating).

Friday, Nov. 23

• Lighthouse Mission free community meal will be noon to 2 p.m. at Assumption Catholic Church gym, 2116 Cornwall Ave.

Reach DEAN KAHN at or call 715-2291.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service