Since the COVID-19 crisis began, Chris Shepherd's Southern Smoke Foundation has given more than $1.2 million directly to hospitality workers in need.

By Maria Yagoda
May 06, 2020
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Credit: Julie Soefer

When Houston chef Chris Shepherd created the Southern Smoke Foundation in 2015, he wanted to help restaurant workers in crisis—namely, those struggling with sudden illness, specifically multiple sclerosis, and who couldn't afford living expenses or treatment. Over the past several years, the charity has evolved to give money directly to people facing all sorts of sudden hardships, including natural disasters. Now, with the entire industry on life support, Southern Smoke is fielding tens of thousands of applications and has grown from two employees to over forty. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the national emergency relief fund has distributed more than $1.2 million directly to hospitality workers in need.

"It was one of those things where we were glad we had a safety net [for people]—then this happens," said Shepherd, a 2013 Food & Wine Best New Chef. "I’m happy that we had it set up. It’s terrifying that we've had to use it the way we do." The operation is unique in that the money given to approved applicants isn't capped and is sent quickly, sometimes in just a few days.

"We trust the individual," said Shepherd. "They send out a blanket 'this is what I need,' and it’s sent to the committee and it’s verified. We give them money for food, water, medical, electric … it’s not capped. We gave a kid 100,000 dollars so his mom wouldn’t have to put him in a hospice and watch him die."

The Southern Smoke committee requires a substantial amount of documentation proving the individual's need, and then once the money is sent, they trust the recipient to spend it themselves. "People in our industry don’t ask for more than what they need," he said.

Here's how it works: An individual fills out an application—in English, Spanish, or Vietnamese—on the Southern Smoke website, which is then sent to screeners who prioritize applications based on urgency. Case workers are assigned to each application, and every night, an anonymous vote is held by the awards committee to grant funding.

Food & Wine is partnering with Southern Smoke Foundation to help raise money for restaurant workers around the country who are in crisis. Please consider making a donation today.

Shepherd wishes there'd been something when he was a young cook. He remembers badly injuring his shoulder during a shift, and knowing he had to just work through it because he couldn't afford to go to the doctor or take the time off work. It had never occurred to him to ask for help.

"I just worked through it, and it still comes up," he said. "I don’t think people should have to make that decision. Cooks do that, waiters do that—they get hurt, and they keep going. You’ll see mental breakdowns because of financial need, and it takes you into a much darker place, and we also help with that as well."

In May, Food & Wine partnered with Southern Smoke to help support the individuals most affected by the industry-wide shutdown. "This community that we love is suffering mightily right now," Editor in Chief Hunter Lewis wrote in a newsletter announcing the partnership. "Thousands of small businesses won’t make payroll this week. Millions of employees who make up the $1 trillion food and beverage industry—from farmers, ranchers, and seafood suppliers to dishwashers, bartenders, and line cooks—remain out of work. Many restaurants won’t ever reopen."

A month prior, the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation began sending half of its donations to Southern Smoke because its quick, efficient, and fair application and vetting process.

"This should be a system that is set up in every single state," said Shepherd. "Because it works."