Cyle Reynolds, chef and owner at Crispy Gai, which coordinates with other restaurants to provide free holiday meals. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jenny Roberts and Cyle Reynolds knew of a family in need of a Thanksgiving meal and wanted to do something. But they quickly realized it wasn’t just one family that could use the help.

“We were like, it doesn’t make sense to do just one,” Roberts said. “We should try and get out as many meals as possible.”

That was three years ago, and the free meal they started that Thanksgiving at Reynolds’ Portland restaurant Crispy Gai has grown to an annual event taking place at both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The restaurant is expecting to serve between 250 and 300 meals this year on Christmas Eve – all free, with no questions asked to anyone who wants them.

They’re not alone in their effort, either. Five other restaurants will help prepare the food, and they’re partnering with the delivery service CarHop to get meals out.

And at least one other Portland area restaurant – Taj in South Portland – also is offering a free meal for the holiday.


“The community has been so supportive of us, so we want to give back as well,” said Sai Guntaka, owner of Taj.


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The Indian restaurant is serving a free meal of chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, chickpea curry, appetizers, naan, and rice on Christmas Day when it also will be open to paying customers.

At Crispy Gai, an Exchange Street eatery specializing in Thai-spiced fried chicken, this year’s meal will be prepared with the help of Smalls, Papi, The Honey Paw, Woodford Food & Beverage, and Ugly Duckling.

Other restaurants have participated in past meals, including the small plates restaurant Regards, which prepared scalloped potatoes with Alpine cheese, béchamel sauce, and herbs for this year’s Thanksgiving.

“It was deeply rewarding,” said Kimberly Zabriskie, one of the restaurant’s owners, who said she grew up with some food insecurity and found special meaning in participating in the meal.

“I think it’s phenomenal that Crispy Gai has led the charge in speaking up for people and advocating for those who might need an honest meal,” Zabriskie said.


Sunday’s menu isn’t finalized yet, but Roberts, the restaurant’s community impact coordinator, said Crispy Gai usually prepares a protein and other restaurants contribute a side dish or dessert.

The restaurants donate staff time and food, though Roberts said they’ve also had good luck in the past getting distributors to donate food.

People are asked to sign up in advance – by midnight Saturday to get Sunday’s Christmas Eve meal – through a link in the Crispy Gai Instagram profile. Deliveries will start around 3 p.m. in Portland, South Portland, and Westbrook, but people from other communities can come to pick up food.

Reynolds preps food at his restaurant on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“They just put their name, address, and contact information, and we deliver no questions asked,” Roberts said.

She said the restaurant has gotten emails from people expressing their appreciation after past meals. Some are experiencing food insecurity; others are alone or are older and unable to prepare a meal themselves.

“It’s not necessarily one type of person that we’re serving,” she said. “That’s kind of the nice thing about it, too. It reaches across all aisles. Food is something that brings us all together.”


Guntaka said Taj gets similar feedback and has been approached by people who want to donate to help cover the cost of the food, but the restaurant does not want to accept donations or contributions. “We’re just glad we can support the community,” he said.

Taj will have meals available for pickup from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Christmas Day (even though an Instagram post lists slightly more limited hours). People are asked to call (207-828-6677) or email ( the restaurant in advance but can also just show up, Guntaka said.

Ken Marks, outside his Portland apartment, orders free meals from Crispy Gai for himself and his neighbors on holidays. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Ken Marks, who lives at 409 Cumberland, an apartment complex managed by the affordable housing provider Avesta Housing, has been ordering holiday meals from Crispy Gai since it started offering them three years ago.


Marks, who moved to Portland five years ago from New Jersey without any family close by, moved into the building shortly after and noticed many of his neighbors were disabled or without plans on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

He heard about the meal on the news and ordered 10 Thanksgiving dinners to share.


“They’re very appreciative,” Marks said. “A lot of my neighbors are shy and don’t want to ask for anything, but when I tell them, ‘I’m getting a meal for you,’ they’re very happy.”

Marks hopes to get about 30 meals to share with neighbors on Sunday, though he knows he could probably give away more if they’re available.

He knows it will be something delicious, like the “amazing fried chicken,” cabbage salad, and scalloped potatoes that were served at Thanksgiving.

“It’s hard to put into words the value of a local restaurant giving out meals to people that could really use them,” Marks said. “A lot of people think about this time of year and reflect. If they can’t be with the people they want to be with, it’s nice to have a good meal, even if it’s just by yourself.”

Reynolds, the chef and owner at Crispy Gai, said the meal is just as valuable to him. Growing up, Reynolds said his father was addicted to heroin, and there “were a lot of inconsistencies in how things were” in his house. Christmas wasn’t a particularly happy time.

The free meal has given new meaning to the day for him. “It feels really great for me,” Reynolds said. “It’s something that’s actually helped me enjoy the holiday season again.”

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