Dec. 30, 2020, 10:30 a.m. EST

Chef Chris Shepherd Expects Hard Winter for Restaurant Workers

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As he learned on Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had blocked a proposal to provide $2,000 in direct pandemic-relief, James Beard award-winning chef Chris Shepherd ’s first thought was for hospitality workers who “are going to get crushed.” 

The $600 that was included in the Coronavirus Relief Package is “not even close” to what many of these workers need, Shepherd says. “That’s sad.” 

Shepherd , executive chef and owner of the restaurant group Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, has been doing what he can for all types of workers in the food and beverage industry suffering as a result of Covid-19 through his foundation, Southern Smoke. 

Founded more than five years ago to raise money for a friend stricken with Multiple Sclerosis, Southern Smoke evolved to provide emergency relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Texas in 2017. “When Covid showed its face, we were set up to be able to [respond],” Shepherd says. 

This year, the foundation has received more than 32,000 applications for relief, and has granted $4.3 million to 2,200 individuals across the country. To date, the fund has raised about $10 million, including $3.3 million from the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation and $1 million donated by chef David Chang from his winnings on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in late November.

Chang’s gift will help ensure the foundation starts the year out strong, which Shepherd believes will be necessary as more and more restaurants will be unable to open amid indoor dining restrictions. 

“The need will be driving really hard pretty soon,” Shepherd says. In cities like Chicago, New York, and Boston, which currently don’t allow indoor dining, the impact will be devastating, he says. 

Southern Smoke will take requests for aid from any worker in the food and beverage industry—whether a busser, dishwasher, waiter, or bartender. Even farmers, distillery, and winery workers, and food and alcohol delivery drivers who have proof of being in the industry for a minimum of six months and an average of 30 hours per week, can qualify.  

Grants have ranged from a few hundred dollars to close to $10,000, depending on need. Each application is evaluated by a case manager—Southern Smoke has hired about 30 since the pandemic began, all former restaurant workers. Some workers need funding for medication they can no longer afford, while others are trying to ward off eviction. The case managers argue for each of their applicants before an awards committee once a day, says Lindsey Brown , co-founder of the foundation. 

In Chicago, Southern Smoke is also overseeing the Chicago Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, dedicated specifically to restaurant, bar, and coffee shop employees, and funded with $4 million from a single private donor. Shepherd says he has “no idea who it is.” 

So far, however, few workers have applied, but Brown notes that it took awhile for the word to get out on the funding available in Houston. 

Shepherd’s own restaurants, which include Georgia James , One/Fifth, and UB Preserve, are running at only 45% capacity now, but he doesn’t know when his own employees seek aid from the foundation. That’s by design—it’s “strategic for me not to know,” he says, because he would immediately say “I know that person—take care of them.”

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