Houston-Based Charity for Hospitality Workers Extends a Hand to Chicago

Chris Shepherd with Southern Smoke smoker

The front page of the Southern Smoke Foundation website prominently displays the slogan “Taking care of our own.” In the wake of COVID-19, those words extend to members of the service industry nationwide, too. While Houston’s hospitality industry has felt the big, negative impact of the COVID-19 situation and related shutdowns, it is not the only city that has faced financial difficulties. The Southern Smoke Foundation, initially co-founded by Houston chef Chris Shepherd and public relations specialist Lindsey Brown, has already distributed $3 million in grants to food and beverage industry workers across the United States since the beginning of the pandemic. Now, it has created a dedicated fund for Chicago — The Chicago Workers Relief Fund — for one of the country’s most impacted cities.

Why Chicago? Chris Shepherd says that the initiative to support the city’s hospitality workers started when a group of anonymous donors recognized the success of Southern Smoke and contacted him. According to Shepherd, they committed to give the Southern Smoke Foundation $4 million to specifically take care of Chicago’s hospitality workers. In addition, the donors promised to match up to $1 million of other donations and cover administrative costs, thus ensuring the money goes where it is most needed. “You can look at this number and say, this is a lot of money, but it isn’t even the tip of the iceberg for what is needed. If you have a little extra, donate it. And, if you need it, apply for it.” says Shepherd. He hopes that this is a stepping stone for establishing similar funds in other cities.

Chicago’s food and beverage scene is massive, with over 7,300 restaurants. In recent years, it has been named Best Restaurant City in America by multiple publications and is home to more than 50 James Beard Award winners, as well as (in non-pandemic years) host to the annual James Beard Awards event. In 2020, the city has 25 Michelin-starred restaurants. The beverage industry is just as renowned, with award-winning bars such as Three Dots and a Dash and The Aviary. All of this means that Chicago also has a lot to lose to the devastation of the pandemic. A press release by the Southern Smoke Foundation stated, “The Chicago restaurant industry has been devastated by the COVID-19 crisis. According to a study by McKinsey & Co, nearly half a million food service jobs in the Chicago metro area are at risk.” 

In response, Southern Smoke, with assistance from the James Beard Foundation, has connected with anonymous donors to establish  to help workers throughout The Windy City. The donors have also agreed to match up to $1 million in donations, along with 

Southern Smoke Foundation logo
Southern Smoke Foundation logo. Courtesy image.

As with the nationwide version of the Southern Smoke Foundation Hospitality Fund, The Chicago Workers Relief Fund distributes grants to employees of restaurants, bars and coffee shops and more to aid with cost-of-living expenses. Workers in Cook County, Illinois can apply to the dedicated fund. A bonus is that the foundation is able to hire service industry employees to assist with administrative tasks for running the charitable effort, making it a win-win. The Foundation is now hiring caseworkers, application screeners, and communications and processing positions. The positions pay $15 per hour and are available for both full-time and part-time. 

The announcement is timely as areas of the city, such as the Miracle Mile shopping district and downtown, were recently the scenes of widespread damage and looting after an officer-involved shooting. Some restaurants were damaged and the situation is causing even more hardship and worry for owners and employees.

If you are looking to support Southern Smoke’s efforts in Chicago, or are a hospitality worker in need of assistance, you can learn more on the website.

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