Taking Care of Their Own

Taking Care of Their Own

How the Southern Smoke Foundation Supported Food and Beverage Workers During the Pandemic? 

The Coronavirus pandemic has presented many challenges that continue to affect our everyday lives to different degrees. Even with vaccine distribution undergoing, our nation still has a long way to go to recover from the residual impacts. One community that has been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 was restaurants and other food and beverage businesses. This industry represents the fabric of local economies and cultural identity within communities through food and hospitality. As the pandemic unfolded, a vast majority of these businesses did not have adequate support to withstand the collapse of this industry. Now, many question the future of the industry and how it might recover. 

Organizations, celebrity chefs, and local consumers recognized that these establishments have a significant impact on their local communities that went beyond the flavor of the food, so they decided to step up by providing much needed financial assistance. The Southern Smoke Foundation, located in Houston, Texas, is one example of an organization that has taken it upon itself to provide disaster relief funds for workers in the food and beverage industry. Kathryn Lott, their current director, spoke with me about how she started working at the foundation and helped carry out their mission to support struggling restaurant and hospitality workers through financial relief. 

Kathryn, who has a background in the nonprofit world - specifically performing arts, was contacted by her dear friend and co-founder of the Southern Smoke Foundation, Chef Chris Shepherd, who asked if she would participate in the foundation as a consultant. At first, Southern Smoke rallied to raise funds for the MS Society as a dedication to Chef Shepherd’s friend and former sommelier, Antonio Gianola, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Southern Smoke has donated $654,000 to the MS Society, making it the largest third-party fundraiser in a five-state area. Just three months after Lott joined the team, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and Lott was catapulted into a much larger role in the foundation by expanding Southern Smoke’s mission by launching their emergency relief fund. 

Establishing this relief fund meant providing much-needed assistance for the people working in the food and beverage industry in Houston who may be facing a variety of crises: for example, medical bills, a car accident, weather catastrophes, family support assistance, unemployment, and mental health needs. Kathryn recalls a conversation with Chris after Hurricane Harvey made landfall when they realized they needed to do more,“When Hurricane Harvey hit here in Houston, Chris Shepherd, our founder, called me and said, ‘Hey I need to figure out how to get money directly into the hands of people in the food and beverage industry that are experiencing this particular crisis’” (Lott). From that moment on, the Southern Smoke team embarked on a whole different system for the disaster relief fund by identifying a void in monetary support for a vulnerable constituent base. “We really pivoted at that time to make it our main focus, meaning the emergency relief fund, and continuing to operate on a full-time basis as far as funding full-time workers that were in crisis” (Lott).  Applicants could apply to Southern Smoke to access these funds to help them recover from the impacts of this natural disaster. Ultimately, The Southern Smoke Foundation was able to donate $501,000 to 139 people in need during Hurricane Harvey. 

As Southern Smoke was channeling their energy towards Houston food and beverage workers through the Hurricane Harvey Crisis, “[Chris] just kept saying, ‘We got to take care of our own...There is nobody else out here doing this.’ And I called him after one of our meetings and I told him ‘Oh, that is our tagline’” (Lott). Chris and the Southern Smoke team helped restaurant workers as if they are family by supporting them through times of crisis. Their goal of helping their urban neighbors ultimately created the framework for conducting their mission-based work in Houston and eventually expanding it to help restaurant and hospitality workers around the country. 

Covid-19 has created a larger role for Southern Smoke to help restaurant and hospitality workers during this challenging time. Kathryn and the rest of the Southern Smoke team recognized the dire circumstances that many of the applicants have faced because of the pandemic and immediately knew their attention had to be focused on this emerging national crisis. The food and beverage industry has always been a reliable source of employment and economic opportunity - especially during times of hardship. However, this crisis has caused mass furloughs, layoffs, and restaurant closures, and has left many workers to wonder if they will ever be able to restore their livelihoods and get back to work.

At the beginning of 2020, Kathryn was the only full-time employee before they slowly started hiring case managers, application screeners, and communication specialists, all of whom had been furloughed or lost their jobs in the food and beverage industry due to the Coronavirus. Kathryn said, “we stayed the course as far as our value and operation system [and had] already established the best operating procedures for us. . . obviously, it was a little bit more extensive considering the massive influx of applications that we had for the amount of people we had to train, but that part of what we do has always stayed the same” (Lott). Case managers would work on a case-by-case basis that would operate in real time and prioritize applicants according to urgency. As Southern Smoke continued to grow and garner nationwide attention from food and beverage workers seeking financial relief, more opportunities became available through collaboration with other organizations to help even more people on a national scale.

Collaborating with others is what has strengthened Southern Smoke’s Covid-19 relief efforts. Kathryn highlights how this collaboration enabled them to create a bigger impact, “One of the first phone calls that we received was from the Restaurant Community Foundation, an incredible organization that is at the top of everybody’s giving list, when they were researching who to donate to during this time. I think this is pretty new grounds for a lot of people who are looking to support. They called us and said, ‘Hey, how do we do this? How do we process these applications, how do we go through the scrutiny and verify employment?’ And I responded, ‘Tell you what, why don’t you do what you do so well, and we do what we do well.’ So, we created a partnership immediately with them where half of their funding for COVID-19 is given to Southern Smoke, [and] Southern smoke is the operational arm of this partnership” (Lott). This truly reflects the organization's ability to work at a grassroots level and provide relief where it is most needed. As of now, the foundation has gifted in almost every state across the country.

Kathryn notes though that despite their success with raising money for food and beverage workers, they still face challenges with going into different markets and cities that have their own unique regional circumstances. “We must do a lot of leg work to gain the trust of those in any market we go into. We partner with many other like-minded nonprofit organizations from women’s shelters to immigration nonprofits to domestic violence to wherever. So, then we try to integrate ourselves through the food community there as well” (Lott). 

The food and beverage industry has always been a reliable place of work for the middle-class, immigrant communities, people of color, and those who seek out the American Dream through owning their own business. According to Kathryn, she feels that “[this] safety net for this country is going through its own entire financial crisis and it is not going to be there for those folks” (Lott). The lack of a support system in place for the food and beverage industry makes the money that Southern Smoke provides even more important and necessary for this industry to recover.  “At the end of the day, that is sort of what I bring it back to, as far as being one of the only organizations out there that can take on this amazing challenge… At this point in time [we have] distributed over 5 million dollars to people in need. Which is great. We are geared up to hopefully achieve that entire number next year, our goal is to hopefully distribute close to 6 million in a 12-month period of time,” says Lott (Lott).  Southern Smoke has truly taken it upon themselves to provide financial relief, employment opportunities, and mental health resources, and continues to find ways to leave a bold, lasting impact as we recover from this pandemic. 

Right now, Southern Smoke is still in the thick of things to continue to get money into the hands of food and beverage workers in crisis. Nonetheless, the team acknowledges that eventually, they will have an opportunity to reflect upon the work they have done this past year and continue to grow as an organization. One will not know when a crisis presents itself. But you can sure bet that Southern Smoke will be ready to tackle any challenge that faces the food and beverage industry and its workers in the future. Read more about Southern Smoke Foundation by visiting their website https://southernsmoke.org/ and learn how you can contribute to their emergency relief fund. 


Works Cited:

Lott, Kathryn. Interview. Conducted by Nikhil Inalsingh, 08 Dec 2020. 

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