During times of crisis, restaurants are there for us. They're where we celebrate, gather, catch-up, connect, and nourish ourselves body, mind, and spirit. At this unprecedented and uncertain moment when people are told to socially isolate because of coronavirus, many of them are in danger of shutting down for good. Food & Wine senior editor Kat Kinsman spoke by phone with Houston chef Chris Shepherd about how he is supporting his team and community, and what the dining public can do to make sure the restaurants they love will still be around.
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“Originally, Shepherd started the nonprofit foundation to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research after a friend was diagnosed with the disease. But last year, Shepherd knew that servers, cooks, and bussers would be uniquely vulnerable in the aftermath of Harvey, and decided to donate Southern Smoke’s proceeds directly to service industry professionals impacted by the storm. The organization set an aggressive fundraising goal of $500,000, and on the day of the event in October, announced that Southern Smoke had exceeded its goal by $1,000.”
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Houston chef Chris Shepherd’s nonprofit, Southern Smoke, fundraises year-round for food and beverage workers in crisis. Now they will channel those funds to this, prioritizing those who need help with medical bills first and foremost.
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It’s heartbreaking to see the very establishments that nourish our bellies and souls and serve as the heart of our communities on the front lines of this crisis. The economic impact is devastating. There are over 15.6 million people employed in the industry taking home over $300B in wages each year. In this episode: David Helbraun & Lee Jacobs of Helbraun Levy, Jill Tyler of Tail Up Goat, and Chris Shepherd of Underbelly Hospitality and Southern Smoke.
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To say there was more financial need than Southern Smoke could provide was “the understatement of the century,” said [executive director Kathryn Lott]. “There’s a huge need for people in any kind of crisis. And when you work shift to shift — there’s just no safety net there for many of them.”
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“Somebody having to decide between staying on their medication or buying groceries doesn’t seem right to us. So that’s what we’re helping with,” Shepherd says.
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“The food and beverage industry is not even paycheck-to-paycheck,” says the executive director of the Southern Smoke Foundation. “It’s shift-to-shift.”
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Since its inception, Southern Smoke has donated more than $1.7 million in relief funds. By the time the coronavirus has run its course, that total will be considerably greater.
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Chef Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund ramped up after Hurricane Harvey, providing funds and care for Houston food-and-beverage employees in crisis. In five years, it has raised $1.6 million. In the face of the coronavirus crisis, Southern Smoke is expanding efforts to help people who have applied from out of state; in just 24 hours it received more than 900 requests
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Crisis isn’t anything new for the Southern Smoke Foundation. Originally founded as a fundraiser to raise money for multiple sclerosis research, the organization shifted its focus to disaster relief in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Following the storm, Southern Smoke donated more than $500,000 to hospitality industry professionals in need, and now keeps its Emergency Relief Fund open year-round to help people in the industry pay for everything from rent to essential medications.
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“Shepherd and HOUBBQ are turning brisket into a cure.”
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“It's all a bit overwhelming and incredibly touching. Honestly, I'm at a loss for words. It's so wonderful of him. Not everybody has a friend who could pull off something this amazing. Chris doesn't think small.”
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Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Southern Smoke has already distributed over $100,000 to people in need. Now that [executive director Kathryn] Lott has started to grow her team of case evaluators, the foundation is able to get money to people in as little as 24 hours.
Chris Shepherd's foundation fires up crucial emergency aid for restaurant workers
“We had a foot of water in our home and we ended up having to get rescued. It was awful and with a 2-year-old baby and my 11-year-old daughter, it was incredibly hard. The whole bottom floor of our home was ruined and we didn’t have flood insurance. We were able to get some help from FEMA but it definitely wasn’t enough to cover what we had. You just don’t realize how much money this is going to be—replacing furniture, walls, cabinets. Southern Smoke was a huge blessing for us. We’re incredibly thankful for this extra support.”
Manager at a Restaurant In Seabrook
"On Sunday, September 30, the fourth annual Southern Smoke Festival kicks off in Houston, bringing together the country's top chefs to cook, eat, and hang out for some excellent causes. This weekend, chefs like Daniela Soto-Innes, Chris Bianco, Billy Durney, Vivian Howard, and Edouardo Jordan descending upon Houston for the event, which will raise money for Southern Smoke's Emergency Relief Fund, a charity that helps restaurant workers get back on their feet after crises, and the MS Society."
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“We were like family at Spaghetti Warehouse, from the customers to my co-workers. I was a waiter there and I was being trained to become a manager…The storm seemed like it came out of nowhere and it really destroyed that restaurant. There was no way it was opening any time soon…I got kicked out of my apartment about two weeks after the storm because I couldn’t pay the rent. I heard about Southern Smoke from my mom and she said they were helping out people in the food and beverage industry…To get this money, it’s just incredible. It gives me my independence back, helps me provide for my three girls a little better. It gets me back on my feet and that means a lot…I love the restaurant business, it’s what I’ve done most of my adult life and I want to get back into it. You get the chance to make other people’s day better. That’s a great feeling.”
Former Waiter at Spaghetti Warehouse Downtown
"The country's biggest names in barbecue converged in Houston Sunday, firing up a lot of smoke. And a lot of money."
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"Taken together, this year’s combination of culinary star power, drinks, and entertainment establishes this year’s Southern Smoke as the best one yet."
Southern Smoke Festival serves up culinary star power, fab fare, and goodwill
"Without help, there was just no way we were going to come back. It’s been incredible to see this kind of support [from Southern Smoke]. God bless everyone who has encouraged us and believed in us. It means so much.”
Owner, Café Benedicte
“My children and I lost almost everything in the storm. It was beyond devastating. Our house is only a shell of what it once was. We were so grateful to hear what Southern Smoke was doing for the people of Houston. We are blown away be the generosity of this organization. We can't wait to get floors and furniture for our home and replace some of my childrens’ things.”
Bartender at Scout Bar In Bay Area
“We pretty much lost everything on our 500 acres with the hurricane. We estimate our total loss at about $400,000. It really devastated us. But the money that we received from Southern Smoke allows us to buy more seeds, replant and restart. We’re very grateful.”
Owner, Gundermann Acres Farm In Wharton
At the National MS Society, we will do whatever it takes to change the world for people affected by MS. Southern Smoke has come alongside us by being one of the largest MS fundraisers in the country, and together with their foundation we are partnering to accelerate life-changing breakthroughs for people living with MS. From cutting-edge research breakthroughs like the first-ever treatment for progressive MS to life-changing support like wellness programs and MS Navigators who guide and support more than 180,000 people every year – the funds raised through Southern Smoke are truly being put to good use for people affected by MS. Every breakthrough matters for the MS community, and the Southern Smoke Foundation is creating connections that are getting us closer to our ultimate goal – a world free of MS.
Linda Bates, National Multiple Sclerosis Society
President, South Central
“We sincerely appreciate this substantial donation to organization’s ongoing program to provide work-gloves to our fishermen. The men and women who provide fish from the Gulf of Mexico are an integral part of the Gulf’s hospitality industry. It is comforting to know that Southern Smoke recognizes we are one family providing the best seafood in the world to our customers.”
Gulf Seafood Foundation
It’s a cause that chefs are eager to support. “Chefs say they’re asked to do festivals all the time, but only a few where they feel like they’re really doing this much good,” Shepherd says. “It’s one of the most moving, emotional, joyous days of the year.”
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“Not only has Shepherd managed to rally this enviable roster of chefs and entertainment, but he’s also enlisted the help of his entire staff, and seeing the joy on everyone’s face is one of the best parts for Shepherd. ‘We’re a restaurant with a greater purpose,’ he says.”
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