By Carol South
Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — Because they can.
Preparing for the second annual Community Christmas Dinner, executive chef and owner Phil Murray of Phil's on Front, contemplated the "why" of throwing a free holiday dinner for hundreds. The event, scheduled from noon to 5 p.m. on Christmas Day, will offer attendees a full meal of roasted turkey or ham plus all the trimmings and bread pudding for dessert.
As his downtown Traverse City restaurant and chocolate bar prepares for its second holiday season outreach, Murray and partner John Mitchell are again sacrificing their Christmas Day to help others.
"I get lots of days off," said Murray. "We like to work."
The effort by Murray and Mitchell complements the Community Meals Program's long-standing annual Christmas Day offering. This year, that organization will hold the 21st annual Community Christmas Dinner from 1 to 3 p.m. on Dec. 25 at Trinity Lutheran Church in Traverse City; delivered meals are also available.
Murray has leveraged his regional prominence in the restaurant field to benefit others many times before. As the owner of Windows for 24 years, he threw a Father's Day benefit for all but one of those years.
With his new restaurant venture, he's focusing on Christmas. Last year, more than 350 guests attended the inaugural Community Christmas Dinner. About three dozen volunteers helped cook, serve and clean up for that feast.
Murray is still looking for additional volunteers to help at the 2010 event, with tasks from busing tables and washing dishes to serving food and mopping floors.
"Volunteers will include our wives and kids, a couple of staff and the owners of the Bluebird Restaurant in Leland," Mitchell said.
"Rumor has it that the world-famous Bluebird cinnamon rolls will be here," Murray added.
This year, Murray and Mitchell have contacted area social- service agencies to spread the word about the free event. They anticipate anywhere from 500 to 600 attendees on Christmas afternoon, a number that will keep the volunteers hopping.
"In the long run, Phil and I have been associated with philanthropic projects for a quarter century now," said Mitchell, the restaurant's garde-manger. "It's an easy opportunity to repay the community at large that supports us generously."
Murray will serve anyone who shows up, no questions asked. The dinner requires no qualifications of hunger or homelessness, for example.
"I know a lot of people would enjoy a meal they would not be able to afford otherwise," Mitchell said.
Area musicians will be playing at Phil's on Front, taking one-hour shifts throughout the afternoon. Performers will include Al Jankowski, Elizabeth Rivers and other drop-in musicians.
"The musicians are donating their time on Christmas Day," Murray said. "So far everyone's kind of cool; it's something different and fun. Everybody seems to be happy about doing it."