Negroni Week News

Fundraising Spotlight: Southern Smoke Foundation

September 13, 2020

When Houston chef Chris Shepherd first opened his restaurant Underbelly in 2012, the aim was to support the city’s food community by buying local ingredients and paying homage to the people of Houston. And while the restaurant became highly celebrated, and Shepherd won a James Beard Award and went on to open multiple restaurants, the mission at the core of it—to support the food community—grew into something even larger.

Shepherd launched the Southern Smoke Foundation in 2015 after learning that his friend and former sommelier had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. With the motto “Taking Care of Our Own,” Southern Smoke has raised and donated more than $700,000 to the MS Society. But when an emergency struck Houston, the organization quickly adapted. “In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and we knew we wanted to be able to get money into the hands of the people who worked in Food and Beverage as soon as possible,” says Kathryn Lott, Southern Smoke’s executive director. “From there, the Emergency Relief Fund was born and, through that, we have been able to distribute over 4 million dollars to those in need all over the country.”

When COVID-19 led to nationwide business closures and millions of layoffs, particularly in hospitality, Southern Smoke stepped up again and quickly pivoted to offer assistance. “In a matter of weeks, we received 25,000 applications from all across the nation. In order to meet that need, we had to hire a team of 40 people to assist the two-person operation we had at the beginning of COVID,” says Lott. So they hired hospitality employees who had been furloughed or otherwise lost work to be application screeners, case workers, processors and more. “Having operated as a crisis relief funding organization for three years prior to COVID, we were poised and ready to jump into action and have been able to fund 3.3 million dollars in crisis relief since March to farmers, line cooks, brewers, dishwashers, etc.”

Having already awarded more than $3 million in funds to nearly 1,800 people, Southern Smoke isn’t slowing down. They’re aiming to hire 40 more employees in Chicago to meet the growing need there. “We will hire people who need and want employment that come from the food and beverage industry and train them to work in the nonprofit sector,” Lott says.

However, she acknowledges that the overall need is beyond the capabilities of any one organization. “We know that we cannot fund everyone that is in need. In order for us to meet the minimum needs of everyone in our portal alone, we would have to distribute $42 million. The most immediate need is for the federal government to come up with a plan for financial relief for these workers.”

Story by Penelope Bass