Southern Hospitality

How Southern Smoke Became a National Leader During the Coronavirus Crisis

The Houston organization serves up food-industry aid nationwide.

By Timothy Malcolm Published in the Fall issue of Houstonia Magazine

IN LATE MARCH, just as Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo closed area restaurants for dine-in service, William Harris was furloughed from his five-month-old server job at Sixty Vines, a restaurant and wine bar that opened in Rice Village in late 2019. Harris was stunned when he got the call. In his eight years in the service industry, this was the first time the 27-year-old, a professional waiter living near Bammel, had ever found himself jobless. 

“Once the news hit, it shook me,” Harris says. “Honestly, it was the first time I realized I’d probably need government assistance. I haven’t taken it before for anything.” 

But he needed to pay rent, stock up on food, and address recent troubles with his 2005 Lexus. So Harris filed for unemployment, though because he was a lifelong restaurant worker whose pay is 90-percent tips, he didn’t get big checks. Even with the federal stimulus payments, he knew the money coming in wouldn’t stretch to cover all his expenses. Meanwhile, nobody was hiring servers, and he says he was given no indication from Sixty Vines as to when he might be able to return to work.

Harris felt hopeless: He feared that there wouldn’t be any jobs for him in the only industry he has known, and that one major setback could completely derail his life, sending him back to his parents’ couch. So he and his girlfriend, who was also furloughed by Sixty Vines, looked for outlets to obtain additional assistance. That led him to Southern Smoke, the local nonprofit co-founded by famed local chef Chris Shepherd that hosts an annual food festival in Montrose, as a lifeline to get through what Harris called a “bizarre” time.

“This was a moment where I needed someone who could say, ‘Hey, I know what it’s like. I hope this helps,’” says Harris. He’s one of more than 100,000 Houston-area food and beverage workers who at least temporarily lost their jobs because of Covid-19, according to the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. The National Restaurant Association estimated in an April 20 survey that more than 8 million restaurant workers nationwide were either laid off or furloughed in the month since the country’s initial pandemic outbreak. Of that cohort, more than 22,000 across the country, including Harris, applied for assistance with Southern Smoke. In March the organization distributed $225,549 from its emergency relief fund to industry workers needing help, an average total for a month. But in April, as nearly all applications reflected the impact of Covid-19, it handed out nearly $1.2 million. Not bad for a charity that was originally conceived as a one-off fundraiser five years ago. 

Southern Smoke started in 2015 as a food festival benefiting the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, as Shepherd wanted to raise money in honor of his friend, local sommelier Antonio Gianola, who once worked with Shepherd and had recently been diagnosed with MS. That festival has continued annually, with the first two raising a total of $463,000 for the National MS Society. Then came August 25, 2017, the day that Hurricane Harvey first smashed into Houston; Shepherd realized that thousands of people who worked in his industry didn’t have a safety net for when disaster and turmoil struck. It reminded him of his years clawing for opportunities while working long, late hours in kitchens across Houston.

“It’s what I grew up with, and what waiters and servers and bussers grew up with,” Shepherd says. “You’re week-to-week and check-to-check. So how do you become better than that?”

Because of Shepherd’s stature as a James Beard Award–winning chef, fellow chefs and other hospitality-industry notables were looking to him for assistance in getting funds to Houstonians displaced by Harvey. So he asked his friend Kathryn Lott, who had worked in nonprofit development, if she could lend a hand.  

“He said, ‘I’ve got people calling me from all over the nation asking me how to get money to people in the industry.’ He didn’t have an answer,” says Lott. “So I said, ‘This is what we’re gonna do.’”

Kathryn Lott. 

Image: Julie Soefer

They instructed those who wanted to donate to send the money to Legacy Community Health, a nonprofit health center located next door to one of Shepherd’s places, Georgia James. They managed to hold the annual event in October, just as they’d done in previous years, but this time they set their fundraising goal at $500,000. Because Southern Smoke was only set up to donate directly to another nonprofit—not individuals like the thousands in the service industry who were now struggling because of continuing fallout from Harvey—they asked Legacy, a nonprofit that does have the correct 501(c)(3) designation, to partner and handle screening applicants. Afterward Southern Smoke’s board decided to become a nonprofit empowered to provide direct help to service industry workers in its own right. Since Harvey the foundation has raised more than $10 million, via both donations throughout the year and the annual food festival.

When Covid-19 hit, Shepherd was forced to furlough 70 percent of the employees of his Underbelly Hospitality—an entity that owns UB Preserv, The Hay Merchant, Georgia James, and One Fifth Mediterranean—once restaurants were mandated to stop dine-in service. Although he was unable to avoid adding to the number of out-of-work servers on his own, Shepherd focused on the one way he felt that he could make a difference: Southern Smoke. He and the coterie that had originally started the nonprofit became intent on using it to help out those in their industry who were left unemployed. They received more than 3,000 requests for aid by the end of the first week of the shutdown in Harris County. 

Then the national media took note. The New York Times profiled Shepherd, focusing heavily on the foundation, just as the pandemic’s impact was deepening. Saveur, Barron’s, and even Rolling Stone all chronicled Southern Smoke’s efforts, while cable networks gave the chef an even wider audience to chat about the organization’s mission. The applications flooded in.

“You’re riding a unicycle and going through the Daytona 500,” is how Shepherd describes the immediate influx. As application numbers continued to soar, donations came from entities large and small, some located in Houston and some elsewhere around the country, who chose the foundation because of the reputation it was building as the largest organization devoted solely to turning donations into emergency aid for food-and-beverage workers.

“It’s really amazing to see everybody coming out of the woodwork to help,” says Shepherd. In late March Tito’s Handmade Vodka made a $1.25 million donation that was split between five causes, including Southern Smoke. Lone Star Beer sold T-shirts with proceeds going to the organization, while Karbach allotted portions of Love Street beer sales to the nonprofit, prompted by Austin-based barbecue legend Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue. In early May Food & Wine magazine announced a partnership with the organization, donating $10,000. Also, the New York–based Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation started directing half of all donations to Southern Smoke, as the RWCF saw it as a potential national leader in distributing emergency assistance.  

“Southern Smoke is really important right now for making sure people are being taken care of,” says John deBary, co-founder of the RWCF. “It’s almost like a first responder, and it creates a sense of unity in the restaurant industry. It’s, ‘We look out for you because you work in the industry.’”

The organization’s leaders are also beginning to address other big-picture issues faced frequently by people in the food-and-drink industry. That first step came in late May, when Southern Smoke announced an initiative to offer free mental health care to all food and beverage workers throughout Texas.

The program includes support from the University of Houston and Mental Health America of Greater Houston. A worker seeking care can apply at Southern Smoke and may be paired with a U of H postgraduate clinician or with a therapist aligned with Mental Health America. Children of industry workers also receive free care through the program. 

Lott and Shepherd hope this program can be replicated in every state, but they admit such things take time. It took two years for Southern Smoke to create the constantly evolving emergency fund, and only three years later has it found the kind of momentum that causes a nation to take notice.

“We put two chariots in front of a pony,” says Shepherd, who brought all of his Underbelly Hospitality employees back from furlough after receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $350,000 and $1 million (some are working reduced hours while filing for unemployment). “Now we’re just catching up to them. We helped set the system up, and we worked a long time to build the network here. But when you get that wave going, you’ve gotta follow it, you’ve gotta push it.”

Southern Smoke’s present endeavors continue to focus on workers affected by Covid-19—like Harris, who one month after applying for assistance received a check for $1,200, which went toward those car repairs and groceries. Two months later he was still seeking a job—Sixty Vines had continued to offer only curbside and limited dine-in service—but found himself in better financial shape. When asked if he would continue being a server once the pandemic has passed, Harris wasn’t so sure. But he did know that he was thankful Shepherd’s nonprofit was there when he needed help the most. 

“Nobody expected this, and a lot of people didn’t have a place to turn. People like me, it’s like, this is your situation, and you need to make money,” Harris says. “But you need something to fix the situation, and that’s what Southern Smoke did.”

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