KAILUA-KONA — A Thanksgiving meal at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill in Kona has become an important holiday tradition for many on the Big Island.
The local restaurant, in a partnership with the Salvation Army, has opened its doors every Thanksgiving to feed more than 900 people annually for the past decade.
It’s a one-day meal the restaurant and volunteers in the community have been preparing for since August, but the time and hard work are worth it to Jackie Rey’s owner Paul Streiter.
“You can only do so much, and you gotta pick something that resonates with you,” Streiter said. “There’s a need on Thanksgiving. Before we started to do it, there was a restaurant that did it for many years, and when they went out of business, there was a hole left on Thanksgiving day. Although, if we were open, we would do 700 or 800 meals on Thanksgiving ourselves, there’s something that’s good about having a big event every year and making a difference on that particular day.”
On Thursday morning, Jackie Rey’s served the community a traditional Thanksgiving meal, buffet-style, in the restaurant. Jackie Rey’s annual event is free and the policy is that everyone in the community is welcome to a meal, regardless of their situation.
Before the buffet opened at 10:30 a.m., half of the Thanksgiving meals prepared by the restaurant were delivered to those in need with the help of the Salvation Army.
“What’s unique about this situation is we don’t feed 900 people in the restaurant,” Streiter said. “There’s 400-500 people in the community that we box food up for at 8 a.m. and the food is sent to retirement communities, to shut-ins that live in areas where they can’t get to us, and to affordable housing complexes where people can receive the meal.”
Streiter said it takes around 100 volunteers to make the meal happen. Volunteers come to the restaurant the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving to peel 300 potatoes, shuck 600 ears of corn, and cut and dice onions, carrots and celery.
Sixty volunteers are on site Thanksgiving day to help.
The food is donated to the restaurant by food companies and individuals in the community. Streiter said the Thanksgiving meal requires at least 80 turkeys.
“All the turkeys are cooked by the people in the community, because there’s no way for us to cook 80 turkeys in a restaurant,” Streiter said. “The turkeys are brought on Wednesday by people from all over the community. And it’s pretty cool, because they bring them, they give you a turkey, and it’s like they all have cooked it with their secret family recipe.”
A big donation for this year came from Nancy Seeley of the Wyndham Kona Hawaiian Resort. Seeley donated turkeys, all of the pies served Thursday, and raised $1,500.
“She went all out,” dining room manager Vincent Cantero said. “She went above and beyond.”
He said people like Seeley are essential to making the meal happen every year.
“Donations are always a challenge,” Cantero said. “But we appreciate everything. Even if companies couldn’t donate, we appreciate them thinking about it. But that’s always the big thing about charities, it’s the donations. It’s hard.”
This year was Cantero’s first as the coordinator for the Thanksgiving meal. He was trained for the big day the past two years under the previous coordinator Anna Schmit.
“It’s important to do because you get to share a special occasion with people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to,” Cantero said. “Even if it’s just once a year, it’s helping the community.”
The kitchen staff of Jackie Rey’s also play a huge part of putting the meal together. The chefs come in before the sun is up to make garlic mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy, as well as cook the corn and other vegetables.
Chef Jeric Genavia said the preparation for Thanksgiving is “hectic and crazy” but necessary for the community.
“We do it once a year, and I think we should do it every day, but I don’t have time for that,” Genavia said with a laugh. “But once a year for the big community is good too. I’ve been living here for 20 years now and I’ve got to give out something. And it feels good to give back.”