Jackie Rey’s, Salvation Army Feed 1,200 on ThanksgivingNovember 29, 2019, 3:08 PM HST (Updated November 29, 2019, 3:08 PM)
Every year, Thanksgiving Day at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill in Kailua-Kona takes shape in an organized, joyous form of chaos.
But it’s the rare quiet moments that Vincent Cantero, manager of Jackie Rey’s and organizer of its 10th annual free holiday dinner, enjoys most.
There are two prayers built into the community event — one prior to the distribution of to-go meals before the restaurant’s buffet opens, and one before the buffet line starts rolling at 10:30 a.m. each Thanksgiving morning.
“I love it when we can all just stand together,” said Cantero, who rarely stood still in the weeks leading up to the event, as he was busy calling donors and organizing volunteers. “We were all together and quiet and it wasn’t chaotic.”
But there’s a lot to be said for the energy at Jackie Rey’s when the praying stops and the feasting begins, said restaurant owner Paul Streiter.
More than 100 volunteers and around a dozen paid employees spend significant time Thanksgiving week and day putting together the charity event.
On Tuesday, they prepped mountains of carrots, onions and potatoes. On Wednesday, they cooked 85 turkeys offsite. On Thursday, they bused tables, took drink orders and helped those who need it by fixing their plates.
“It’s just a very welcoming event,” said Vicki White, who’s volunteered at Jackie Rey’s for multiple Thanksgiving celebrations. “People are getting a nice meal who may or may not be able to do that (otherwise).”
Roughly 1,200 meals were doled out, Streiter said. The Salvation Army, event co-sponsor, handles the logistics of delivering around 400 of those plates to shut-ins at places like retirement homes.
Several hundred more community members made their way through the buffet line Thursday, piling plates high with turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls and a slice or two from more than 100 pies. Some of them took extra plates back to family or friends, Streiter said.
The vast majority of those served Thursday are low-income, Streiter explained, but anyone in the community is welcome.
“It makes your head spin just how many people (are in need),” Streiter said. “But we welcome everybody. If somebody pulls up in a Mercedes, they’re welcome, too. If you want a meal have a meal. If you want to take five meals with you, take five meals with you.”
The annual Jackie Rey’s Thanksgiving Day event began a decade ago when Streiter noticed “kind of a hole in the community” when it came to this particular holiday. A local establishment that had hosted a similar kind of dinner closed, Streiter said, and Jackie Rey’s decided to fill the void.
But the restaurant can’t do it all on its own. Donations have always played a key role in keeping Thanksgiving dinner a tradition on the property. In 2019, Jackie Rey’s lost one of its biggest contributors. Then, someone stepped in.
Both Streiter and Cantero mentioned Nancy Seeley, of Hawai‘i Island, by name Thursday, crediting her for the donation of more than 100 pies and raising $1,500 to support the event.
Seeley’s generosity was one of several threads weaving a good vibe throughout the morning and into the afternoon, when volunteers began breaking down the buffet line a little before 1 p.m.
Ken Santiago, 21, came to Hawai‘i Island with his family three years ago from California. Ken’s parents, Jose and Raghel Santiago, are lieutenants with The Salvation Army Kona Corps. Days like Thanksgiving Day at Jackie Rey’s are part of their mission — the entire reason they’re here at all.
“Man, it was beautiful,” Ken said. “Hungry people got fed and Thanksgiving … you could feel the family energy around the whole restaurant. It was amazing.”