Houston Chef’s Nonprofit Gives More Than $300,000 to Hurting Restaurant Workers

No Waiting For These Checks

BY // 04.06.20

As of Monday, chef extraordinaire Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Foundation has distributed, since the start of the pandemic, close to $314,000 to restaurant and bar professionals whose lives have been upended by COVID-19. That is 161 COVID-19 grants (out of 15,104 recent applications) issued, with more than $93,000 of that going out already in April.

With restaurant dining-room and bar closures enforced around the country, the demand for assistance from the Houston-based nonprofit has soared beyond imagination. During the Hurricane Harvey crisis, the applications, by comparison, numbered only 200.

“When we started this foundation five years ago, I had no idea where it would go,” Shepherd says. “I certainly couldn’t have imagined a scenario where we are one of the only entities in America with the ability to hit the ground running and get much needed money into people’s hands so they can survive. The foundation has evolved since 2015 from a fundraising event for the MS Society in honor of my friend Antonio Gianola to a crisis-relief organization with national reach.

“But one thing has never changed: We’re here to take care of our own.”

Southern Smoke initially shifted its focus in 2017 to provide assistance to individuals in the food and beverage industry affected by Hurricane Harvey. From there, the foundation established its Emergency Relief Fund to aid those in crises across the country.

Between Hurricane Harvey and today’s pandemic, Southern Smoke’s philanthropy has extended across the country. Before the crisis, Southern Smoke aided a server in California who could no longer afford her housing at an extended-stay hotel because she was paid only shift to shift and was living with her daughter in her car. The helping hand reached to Tennessee, where a server needed house repairs after it was rendered uninhabitable by a tornado. At home, the foundation granted funds to a local bar owner that ensured his employees kept their health benefits and the business stayed open.

“In this time of great crisis, we’re the safety net for an industry that contributes so much to their communities,”  Southern Smoke executive director Kathryn Lott says in a statement. “My team and I will do everything we can to take care of as many people as we can so our restaurants and bars are still standing after this crisis …  The Southern Smoke team will continue to work, and we will all get through this together. We’re here to take care of our own.”

At the beginning of March, the foundation had two full-time employees and one part-time. There are now 20 full-time employees, all of whom are food and beverage professionals whose jobs disappeared due to COVID-19. They are being paid $15 an hour.

Donations can be made to Southern Smoke here.

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