By Colleen Leonardi
The Southern Smoke Foundation has a reputation for giving. The non-profit started in 2015 and they haven’t stopped. Chef Chris Shepherd of Houston, Texas co-founded Southern Smoke after his friend and sommelier, Anthony Gianola, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 2017 after Hurricane Harvey, the non-profit foundation started an Emergency Relief Fund to support people in the food and beverage industry based on the urgency of their needs. Accidents, weather disasters, family tragedy, medical bills—if you have been in the industry for a minimum of 6 months at 30 hours per week and you have a crisis, you qualify.
Then COVID-19 happened, and a new beast was born for Chef Shepherd and his team. While they have distributed more than $1.8 million to nearly 1,000 people since the crisis hit, they are just getting started.
“We don’t see an end to the crisis,” said Lindsey Brown, co-founder with Chef Shepherd of Southern Smoke. “Even after restaurants reopen across the country, it won’t be the same. People in the food and beverage industry will continue to need assistance, and we will continue to provide it.”
The truth hurts, but in this moment of national crisis it may be the medicine we need to reinvent the restaurant business with the people who created it in the first place. Southern Smoke’s clarity about the needs of workers in the food and beverage industry and their commitment to serve goes beyond inspiring. Despite facing challenges they’re meeting the demand and thinking long term.
“We’ve received more than 25,000 applications for assistance, so we’re working as quickly and efficiently as we can to process their applications and provide funding for people in the food and beverage industry in need,” said Brown. “We’re also working hard to fundraise, so we have the funds to provide to our applicants. Southern Smoke is our inspiration. I’m so thankful that we already had an emergency relief fund in place, so all we needed to do was put it into high gear.”
Recently, they also turned to address mental health in the restaurant industry. In May, Southern Smoke announced it will partner with Mental Health of America of Greater Houston and the University of Houston “to provide free mental healthcare to any food and beverage worker and their children in Texas.”
Since 2017 Southern Smoke offered free mental health services to Houstonians through a partnership with Legacy Community Health. Yet the nonprofit was unable to assist people outside of Houston. “For the past three years—since defining the need to develop a mental healthcare program available to food and beverage employees—Southern Smoke executive director Kathryn Lott has been working with Mental Health America of Greater Houston and, more recently, the University of Houston, to develop this program,” writes Brown. In time, Southern Smoke hopes to work within Texas to scale up their programs and offer them to universities nationwide.
The focus on mental health couldn’t come at a better time. While COVID-19 continues to keep people out of work and at home, the need for someone to talk to is greater than ever. Chef Shepherd is known for his big hugs, and Southern Smoke’s recent move is like one big hug for the state of Texas. One day soon maybe that big hug will embrace the nation.
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