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Giant Thanksgiving dinner no problem for the Matterhorn Conference Center

The scale of the Salvation Army’s annual Thanksgiving dinner would be overwhelming for most venues, but it’s a breeze for the Matterhorn Conference Center.

For the past seven years, the eatery in Elkhart has hosted a free turkey dinner featuring 650 pounds of mashed potatoes, 150 pies, 50 pans of dressing, 30 gallons of gravy and — most importantly — 65 turkeys.

But Kurt Janowsky, co-owner of the Matterhorn, said it’s not too much of a challenge for him and his staff members, who donate their time on Thanksgiving day. After all, they hold large-scale events all year round.

“We seat 1,500 people lots of times throughout the year, so we know how to do it,” Janowsky said. “We’ve got a big commercial kitchen with a lot of equipment, so we can do that.”

They also have a lot of extra help. Janowsky said there are usually about 120 volunteers who want to pitch in for Thanksgiving dinner, and it can be difficult to find work for all of them.

“The biggest challenge for us is making it a meaningful experience for the volunteers,” Janowsky said. “There are volunteers here that have been doing this for much longer than I have. A lot of them came and did this when the dinner was held at the Army on Main Street, and they’re still volunteering.”

Janowsky said there are even volunteers that continue to bring in food cooked on other sites, a tradition that began when the dinner was held at the much smaller Salvation Army location in downtown Elkhart.

“We have a group called the ’Turkey Thugs’ that bring us 18 turkeys every year that they cook at Volcano Pizza, so they get up bright and early and cook these turkeys,” Janowsky said. “When we started doing this, they asked if we still wanted their birds, and of course we said yes.”

And while there is no shortage of willing volunteers, there is also no shortage of people in need of a holiday meal. Janowsky said between 1,200 and 1,300 attended Thursday’s dinner.

“But they ate like 1,500,” Janowsky said with a laugh. “They ate every bit of turkey we had.”

Although the Matterhorn hosts the event, plenty of other businesses and charities pitch in. United Pies of Elkhart donates apple, pecan and pumpkin pie, while much of the money for the dinner is provided by the Rotary Club of Elkhart Morning

“They financially help us a great deal. They provide money for all the turkeys and some additional funds,” Janowsky said. “They really stepped up this year and really underwrote this thing.”

Janowsky said he and his family all volunteer for the dinner so generally they don’t get to sit down and enjoy their own meal. But positive reactions from the people they serve more than make up for the sacrifice.

“The very first year we did this, there was a gentleman who clearly had seen better times and came up to me when it was done,” Janowsky said. “He was by himself, and he said, ’Sir, I want to thank you. This is the first time I’ve ever eaten a meal in a restaurant with a linen napkin.’ That made me feel good. 

“So that’s what we’re doing, we’re feeding people who don’t usually come to events at the Matterhorn.”

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