Every morning , Houston chef/restaurateur Chris Shepherd gathers six feet apart from the managers of his Underbelly Hospitality team and asks if they want to keep providing to-go service for the group’s trio of award-winning restaurants: One Fifth Houston, Georgia James, and UB Preserv.
“I ask, ‘At some point, do you want to wind this down?’ Everybody says, ‘No, I don’t want to sit at home,’” says Shepherd, a James Beard Award winner who last year was chosen by the Robb Report as the best chef in America. “What we can do is cook and we can feed people. And that’s as a service. It’s an essential service. And there’s no playbook for this. Everybody’s gotta make their own way and do it as best and as safely as they can.”
Shepherd has seen Houston’s restaurant scene forced to reinvent itself before, three years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. At the time, he transitioned his Southern Smoke Foundation—which he launched in 2015 to benefit the MS Society—into an Emergency Relief Fund to provide assistance to people in the food and beverage industry affected by the hurricane. In 2017, Southern Smoke donated $501,000 to 139 people in need. Now, dedicated to the pandemic response, and with the application, vetting processes, and procedures already in place, Southern Smoke has received more than 3,500 applications for assistance in one week. And while individuals are donating to get money distributed to those who need it, so are corporations: The Houston Texans Foundation donated $50,000 to Southern Smoke, and Tito’s Vodka named Southern Smoke one of four beneficiaries of their $1 million donation to support the industry. (For more information on how to help Southern Smoke and other organizations and fundraising efforts, here’s our look at resources across Texas.)
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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. “But with Harvey, you could see the waters. The problem was right out in front of you. Now, there’s no timeline, right? With Harvey, it was, ‘Okay, the water’s gone.’ But when is this going to be over? Is it going to be a week? Is it going to be a month? How long are people not going to be working?”
On a special edition of the National Podcast Of Texas, recorded Wednesday afternoon, Shepherd details the dire times restaurants are facing not just in Houston, but globally. He’s also unambiguous about the struggle his own restaurants face in eventually reopening.
Among our other discussion points:
- Why he believes restaurants that can stay open for to-go service must, not just for themselves, but for the survival of other elements of the hospitality ecosystem (from farmers and fishmongers to linen companies and alcohol distributors).
- The tiny margins and small cash reserves that most restaurants operate under
- How declining oil prices impact not just philanthropic giving in Houston, but also the overall dining scene’s health were it to eventually come back
- The hit that Houston’s famously diverse dining scene took even before most restaurants closed, when people acting out of fear or ignorance of COVID-19 stopped dining at Asian restaurants
- Things he’s seen in the last few weeks that have made him hopeful