For Tiffany Derry, the rolling blackouts were more predictable at the restaurant than at her house. The Plano chef lives five minutes away from her restaurant, Roots Chicken Shak, and while the electricity “didn’t want to roll back on” at home, she knew she had just enough time at the restaurant to shuffle ingredients into the biggest cooler in the kitchen. Crucially, this meant she didn’t lose those supplies, and while the restaurant did have a few water lines break, she was able to start cooking on Wednesday, February 17. “We were going to just do free food for anyone who wanted a hot meal,” she says. “We ended up rolling out some chicken and dumplings; we did some beef and vegetable soup. Anybody who needed just came and got some.”
The restaurant served free food on Thursday the 18th, too. By Friday Derry was getting donations to support the effort, and she started delivering meals to organizations sheltering displaced families in hotels. “We went from zero to one hundred real quick,” she says, estimating that, so far, Roots Chicken Shak has donated more than a thousand meals. “And we’re still in it.”
She’s not alone. Across Texas, as the power grid failed and pipes burst in the wake of record-breaking winter weather, people working in the food industry stepped up to offer neighbors hot meals and drinkable water. Food trucks running on propane turned out tacos and vats of chili. Breweries boiled water in their massive cisterns. White-knuckled restaurant owners drove catering vans down icy freeways, reduced to one lane of traffic, to deliver boxed lunches to warming shelters and distribution points.
In Pearland, Killen’s Burgers gave out over 1,500 burgers for free. In East Austin, Nixta Taqueria teamed up with Discada, Cuantos Tacos, Dough Boys, Comadre Panadería, and more to serve hundreds of meals to the neighborhood. In the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Trompo fed 650 people in one day. These efforts are admirable, but not unique: over the past week, Texans in dire straits were fed by numerous restaurants, breweries, and food trucks, many independently owned, offering anything they could to their communities.
Greg Henry owns two restaurants, Papa Jack’s in Kyle and Willie’s Joint in Buda. He says giving out free meals was cook Mack McGuire’s idea, and at first, the staff handed out the burgers and hot dogs they typically serve. “But as things got worse and delivery trucks couldn’t deliver,” the team started cooking and serving anything they could get their hands on, Henry says, including breakfast tacos and spaghetti, which are not on the menu at either venue. The restaurants donated meals to neighbors, first responders, and employees at the Ascension Seton Health Center in Buda, about a mile away from Willie’s.
In North Austin, Adelbert’s Brewery started boiling water on Thursday, February 18. The citywide boil water notice had only gone into effect at 9 p.m. the night before, but taproom manager Sean Farmer says they didn’t wait to be asked to help: “The first chance we had everything up and running after the storm, we immediately came in.” They started on a small scale, boiling water with propane, but were soon able to offer thousands of gallons to anyone who could drive up with a large container. All told, owner Scott Hovey estimates Adelbert’s gave out two to three thousand gallons. He explains that breweries are uniquely able to provide potable water quickly, since the brewing process requires equipment that can both boil and cool large quantities of water to maintain purity. And, indeed, breweries across Texas— including South Austin’s St Elmo Brewing Company, Equal Parts Brewing in Houston, Denton County Brewing Co., San Antonio’s Weathered Souls, and Southern Roots in Waco—were among the most numerous, reliable sources of potable water.
As the crisis continued, the relief effort became more organized. Companies began to sponsor the free food coming out of restaurant kitchens, and celebrities like former NFL player/University of Texas alum Michael Huff and DJ/producer Diplo bought out entire restaurants’ worth of meals to help the cause. In Dallas, the nonprofit Staff Meal organized over seventy restaurants and served more than five thousand free meals. World Central Kitchen, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit started by chef José Andrés to organize food relief in communities affected by natural disasters, activated in Texas on February 17, allowing restaurants to expand their relief efforts.
The organization Good Work Austin was well situated to respond to the crisis. Originally founded to help restaurants implement progressive workplace policies such as paid sick leave, the group opened its GWA Community Kitchen after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, working with restaurants to provide meals to food-insecure communities. Thus GWA already had ties to the Austin Independent School District, Austin Public Health, the city’s Emergency Operations Center and others, which allowed it to mobilize quickly when power and water went out. Adam Orman, GWA founding member and co-owner of Austin restaurant L’Oca d’Oro, estimates that by the end of this week, Good Work Austin will have facilitated between 80,000 and 90,000 meals. Many of these were cooked by three dozen restaurants new to the organization, which Orman hopes will continue their involvement.
Now that the power’s back on and temperatures across Texas are spiking to pleasant if unseasonable highs, there’s still much work to be done to recover. Houston chef Chris Shepherd’s Southern Smoke Foundation has started a Texas Winter Storm Relief Fund to help in the long term: “For the farms, for the fishermen, for the rangers. You lose all your chickens, what are you going to do? Well, maybe we can help. You lose all your crop, what are you going to do? Maybe we can help. Maybe we can help buy those seeds again to help you replant.” Any member of the food and beverage industry can apply for financial assistance through the Southern Smoke website. As of February 24, the Texas Winter Storm Relief Fund had raised around $568,000, including a $400,000 donation from electricity trader Adam Sinn, who donated the windfall he made off the power grid failure.
All of this would be impressive on its own, but it’s even more so when you consider how much the hospitality industry was already struggling before the storm hit. It’s been nearly a year since everyone was beset by shutdowns thanks to COVID-19, and the restaurant world has been severely affected by pandemic restrictions. But the chefs, brewers, taqueros, pitmasters, bakers, and line cooks who helped feed Texans during the winter storm crisis of February 2021 did not let a year of energy and morale depletion stop them. If anything, says Greg Henry, he was fueled by “[seeing] everybody come together, since the time we’re in is very separated.” Tiffany Derry says that when customers who didn’t have power themselves donated what cash they could, “[it] gave me the energy I needed to do what I needed to do to step up.” And Adam Orman says it was as simple as looking out at the snow and thinking: “It’s bad. I have food. I’m going to cook it, and we’re going to deliver it.”