LAFAYETTE — When Ema Haq moved to the U.S. 32 years ago, he had never heard about Thanksgiving.
But for the past 22 years, Haq, with the help of volunteers, has opened his restaurant, Bailey’s Seafood and Grill, on this most American of holidays to offer food and friendship.
“For me, it’s definitely about giving back to the community that has been so great to me over the years,” said Hag, a native of Bangladesh who landed in Louisiana to study mechanical engineering at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Many come to the annual event at Haq’s Johnston Street eatery not only for the sustenance but also for the camaraderie.
“You get to spend Thanksgiving with people,” said Judy Johnson, sitting next to her mother. “Instead of staying home alone, we come here.”
The two have been coming to Bailey’s on Thanksgiving for the past five years.
Barbara Spencer, who taught English at Lafayette High School for 34 years before retiring, has attended the annual luncheon for more than 10 years. Despite having family events to go to later in the day, she said, starting her Thanksgiving off at Bailey’s has become a tradition.
“When I came in, they asked me if I want to sit with someone, and I said, ‘No, I’ll sit by myself so I can meet new people,’” she said. “I enjoy being here because it makes me feel like I have something really extra special to be thankful for.”
Helping people connect through sharing meals were the volunteers who cooked, served and even delivered meals.
“I volunteer because I love the sense of community and giving back,” said Ashley Julia, one of about 10 serving hot food in the center of the dining room.
About 15 volunteers buzzed about in Bailey’s kitchen, cooking Thanksgiving staples like turkey, corn maque choux, green beans and rice dressing.
“Everybody needs a little help from time to time,” said Shannon Small, a volunteer in the kitchen and manager at Fat Pat’s on Verot. “I’m not working today, so I might as well come help out.”
Small estimated they cooked at least 50 turkeys for the event.
“We prepare about 800 meals every year,” Haq said. “We have a lot of food and a lot of volunteers doing their best.”
Outside the kitchen, volunteers brought food to those who couldn’t make it to the restaurant but needed a hot Thanksgiving meal.
Before going to her daughter’s house to celebrate the holiday with her children and grandchildren, Galen Boutin stopped by to pick up meals for neighbors in her senior center who didn’t have money to buy meals or families to celebrate the holiday with.
“I can’t stand to see people go hungry,” she said.