In 2015, Chris Shepherd threw a party and invited a few hundred of his closest friends. Called Southern Smoke, the festivities were a tad exuberant, as the gregarious Houston chef’s gatherings tended to be, with plenty of smoked meats, international flavors, and free-flowing libations. This particular party had a very specific purpose: Proceeds from ticket sales went to help Shepherd’s friend and former sommelier Antonio Gianola, who was dealing with multiple sclerosis.
Over the next several years, Southern Smoke grew in prominence. It was an honor to be asked to cook by Shepherd, who had gained national prominence with his restaurant Underbelly and for winning a James Beard award in 2014. Well-known chefs from around the state and country came to help the cause and to carouse late into the night.
The National MS Society continued to be a beneficiary even as the scope of the organization expanded to encompass restaurant and bar workers in need. Its presence grew as well. The office was still small—just a handful of people—but the group hired an executive director, Kathryn Lott, to lead it full time.
In August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey scoured the Gulf Coast, the Southern Smoke Foundation met its greatest challenge to date, handing out $501,000 in aid to 139 food and beverage industry workers whose lives had been upended by the storm. What had started out as a one-shot fundraiser had morphed into an established relief organization for food and beverage workers. After its fifth annual festival in October, things were on track for the biggest party that the 501(c)(3) organization had thrown to date, with a spring event scheduled for March 28. And then the coronavirus showed up and almost ruined everything.
The first blow came in early March when Southern Smoke had to cancel its spring event, at which it hoped to raise $200,000, for fear of spreading the virus. But a far more serious blow came a few weeks later when the same fears—now much enhanced—led the city of Houston to close restaurants to all business but takeout. In a matter of days, the foundation was slammed with pleas for help. Some 3,500 requests poured in during a single week from desperate servers, dishwashers, managers, and everyone in between.
Southern Smoke had lost its annual infusion of capital, but it was not finished. The magnitude and shock of the crisis actually led to unexpected sources of funding. The Houston Texans donated $50,000, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka named Southern Smoke one of four beneficiaries of a $1 million donation to support the industry. In addition, the nonprofit Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation partnered with Southern Smoke to help give out direct assistance from its Restaurant Workers COVID19 Crisis Relief Fund.
Since its inception, Southern Smoke has donated more than $1.3 million in relief funds (you can donate here). By the time the coronavirus has run its course, that total will be considerably greater.
“Everybody’s come to the table and are doing a lot of donations, and that’s great, but we especially need larger companies throwing big chunks of money at us,” Shepherd told Texas Monthly’s Andy Langer during a special edition of the National Podcast of Texas. He’s not shy about asking for money, because he realizes that people in the industry cannot get by without a paycheck for more than a few days, and he wants to help: “That’s what Southern Smoke is for.”
In addition to Southern Smoke, there are many ways for restaurant workers to seek help and for Texans to donate.
We’ve compiled a list, below, of some of the larger aid organizations. But because local media can be more complete, you should also check eater.com and culturemap.com in the major cities, alternative newspapers, and city newspapers (most of which have made their coronavirus coverage free to nonsubscribers). Some television and radio stations have lists of sources. So do chambers of commerce.
If you have not been hurt by economic slowdown, you can actually help:
- You can donate to Southern Smoke and many of the other groups in the list below.
- You can order takeout from a favorite restaurant. Remember to add a nice tip.
- You can buy a restaurant gift card (actually, buy a bunch, even if you never intend to use them).
- You can look for novel ideas that restaurants have dreamed up to make a little extra money. Easy Tiger bakery in Austin is selling its cherished sourdough starter in a kit so you can (try to) make bread like theirs at home. Asian Mint in Dallas has launched a meal kit with premeasured fresh ingredients and a recipe card that lets you make pad thai, dumplings, or tom yum soup in your kitchen.
- Consider GoFundMe requests from various local restaurants; be sure they are legitimate, of course.
Help for Restaurant Industry Workers
National and Statewide
An advocacy nonprofit founded by industry workers, the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation recently launched the RWCF COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to collect donations that will provide relief to individual workers. Currently, the organization is working to allocate 50 percent of funding to direct relief of individual restaurant workers, 25 percent for nonprofit organizations serving restaurant workers in crisis, and 25 percent for zero-interest loans for restaurants to get back up and running.
Since 1948, the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild has been supporting the bar industry with education, networking, and career advancement opportunities. Through its charity wing, the USBG National Charity Fund, the organization is raising money to help support those affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Industry professionals may apply for aid from the Bartender Emergency Assistance Program COVID-19 Relief Campaign.
This Phoenix, Arizona-based nonprofit serves as a financial resource for the hospitality industry through scholarships and emergency assistance. Industry professionals may apply for emergency relief through the website.
A rapid response to the needs of the sommelier community in America, this fundraiser’s founding team includes a handful of master sommeliers, masters of wine, and other beverage professionals. Donations are currently being accepted through the website, and applications for individual aid are now being accepted for sommeliers who have lost employment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more than thirty years, the James Beard Foundation has been an integral part of highlighting the centrality of food culture throughout the country. The foundation has recently launched a fund that will gather support from corporate and individual donors to provide micro-grants to independent food and beverage businesses in need. Donations are currently being accepted online, while small, independent restaurants are encouraged to request assistance online as the foundation works to hammer out its official application.
A newly forged partnership between Maker’s Mark and chef Edward Lee, this relief response for those who have been laid off includes free dinners for those affected throughout specific cities in the country, including Houston. Beginning Saturday, March 28, partner restaurant Riel serves as the sole Texas-based Lee Initiative location in which out-of-work hospitality workers may pick up free to-go dinners as well as other essentials such as fresh produce, toilet paper, and diapers. The program is funded by both of its founding partners, but is also taking donations to help grow the program.
An outlet for purchasing gift cards to various restaurants, this site functions as an aggregator of restaurants around the country. Currently, there are nearly two hundred Texas restaurants participating from most of the state’s major cities.
Led by the Alliance for a Just Society, a nonprofit organization advocating against the sub-minimum wage lays for tipped workers, the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund aims to raise $213,000, a reference to the $2.13/hour most restaurant employees earn in accordance with the federal minimum wage for tipped workers. The organization will provide immediate cash assistance to restaurant employees, delivery workers, and other tipped workers in the food industry.
This organization originated as a worker relief center for restaurant workers and their families affected by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Today, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United has shifted its focus to help both documented and undocumented restaurant workers who lose their jobs during the pandemic. With a goal of raising $500,000 for its emergency relief fund, the organization is taking donations on its website. Industry workers in need of aid may apply for assistance on the site, which also serves a resource for information on other national, state, and local relief funds.
For those looking to maximize the opportunity for financial assistance, this virtual database helps locate financial aid from donor funds, government agencies, and nonprofits. Users may search by state as well as by job role.
As part of the Texas Restaurant Association‘s effort to advocate for support of the more than 50,000 restaurants throughout the state of Texas, this fund was established through its 501(c)(3) nonprofit wing, the Texas Restaurant Association Education Foundation. With a goal to raise at least $10 million to support as many of Texas’s restaurants as possible, the association accepts donations online or via text—send “TRRF” to 31996. Restaurants in need of relief may apply online for a grant of up to $5,000. These funds are specifically allocated for restaurants in order to keep their doors open and their workers employed.
Unite Here is a labor union that represents members in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation, and airport industries throughout the United States and Canada. It is currently collecting donations to help assist its members with rent, groceries, health insurance, and lost wages.
This basic Google spreadsheet offers a running list of out-of-work service industry professionals along with their Venmo or PayPal handles.
Managed by local volunteer administrators in cities all over the country, the Service Industry Tip jar for Austin randomly selects servers in the city who have signed up through the site following a layoff. The site randomly selects a server each time you visit and encourages patrons to leave a tip via Venmo or on Cash App every time you sit down for a drink at home.
A part of the Dallas-based 8020 Concepts is a DFW restaurant group founded in 2013 that owns HG Sply Co, Standard Service, and Hero. While the restaurant dining rooms have been shut down, the hospitality group has left the kitchens open to launch the Everybody Eats campaign to provide free meals to Dallas-area families or individuals who have been laid off or displaced due to the virus. Those who want to donate or sponsor the initiative, as well as those in need of assistance, are encouraged to do so through the website.
The Fort Worth Food & Wine Festival 501(c)(3) foundation has temporarily shifted its focus from educational grants and scholarships to launch this Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. It has redirected a minimum of $100,000 to aid employees who have fallen victim to the pandemic’s restaurant closures. The organization is accepting donations online to help increase funding allocation. Individuals may apply online for relief of up to $500. Applications are currently being reviewed and approved weekly.
This is a new concept from Front Burner Restaurants, the hospitality group that owns Whiskey Cake, Legacy Hall, Mexican Sugar, and Sixty Vines. The company has collaborated with Vestals Catering and City Square, a local nonprofit dedicated to improving the effects of poverty, to create Furlough Kitchen, a pop-up nonprofit, which provides unemployed hospitality workers a free pickup meal every day, Monday-Saturday. The kitchen is churning out more than one thousand meals a day through its drive-thru pick up window.
ServiceIndustry.tips is a website, organized by city, that lets users give a donation, using Venmo or Cash App, to a participating member of the service industry, including restaurant and bar people, among others. Your recipient is randomly selected for you. Both donors and donees may sign up.
BCN /MAD’s Curbside Community Kitchen
Spanish restaurants BCN Taste and Tradition and MAD have launched the Curbside Community Kitchen as a way to offer Houston out-of-work hospitality industry workers a free meal. For the time being, 2oo complimentary meals will be handed out from the MAD location from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. every Monday through Friday.
This volunteer effort has been organized by sommelier Cat Nguyen, publicist Jonathan Beitler, and event organizer Claudia Solis. (Each were also instrumental in galvanizing restaurant resources to feed people displaced by Hurricane Harvey.) Houston Shift Meal offers daily options for unemployed restaurant workers. Through generous corporate and individual donations, the organization gives restaurants $250 in exchange for fifty meals that will be given away. To date, participating restaurants have included Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Rudyard’s, and Cherry Block. In addition, Goodnight Hospitality is distributing boxes of raw ingredients sourced from the company’s Good Thyme Farm. Those interested in obtaining a free meal can follow Houston Shift Meal’s Facebook page. Those wishing to make a donation or who would like to become a restaurant partner can visit the Houston Shift Meal website.
Celebrating the rich culinary culture of San Antonio, this nonprofit organization has launched a relief fund campaign to raise money for those who have lost jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization is currently taking donations at its website and is working with local chefs such as Jason Dady to distribute free meals to industry staff. Dady’s Alamo BBQ Co. restaurant on Grayson Street has been temporarily renamed “HospitALLity House” and is serving free lunches and dinners based on funds raised by the Culinaria Emergency Relief Fund.