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Houston Chef Chris Shepherd's Southern Smoke Has Raised $3,361,772 for Restaurant Workers in Need Right Now

Southern Living logo Southern Living 10/1/2020 Perri Ormont Blumberg
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Catchlight Photography © Provided by Southern Living Catchlight Photography

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it's been an indescribably difficult time for millions of Americans. Restaurant workers, in particular, have shouldered some of the hardest burdens as many are without work and struggling financially and mentally. In light of these recent hardships, Houston's Underbelly Hospitality chef/owner Chris Shepherd (pictured above in 2015) and the Southern Smoke Foundation, a charitable relief organization for the restaurant industry that Shepherd co-founded, have provided much needed support to these men and women.

Though the organization was originally launched by Shepherd in 2015 to help a friend and former sommelier who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, in 2017, Southern Smoke pivoted to offer aid to those in the food and beverage industry impacted by Hurricane Harvey. In light of this natural disaster, Southern Smoke founded its Emergency Relief Fund to help the restaurant industry during times of crisis. Now, since the coronavirus broke out stateside, the Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund has distributed $3,361,772 to 1,821 people nationwide. This brings the total amount of relief funds doled out since the organization's founding to more than $5 million—and they're only getting started. Also worth noting:  In July, thanks to some very generous anonymous donors, Southern Smoke launched a $4 million Chicago Emergency Relief Fund for restaurant, bar and coffee shop workers in Cook County, Illinois.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: "We’re all in this together, and we are proud to take care of our own.” © Catchlight Photography "We’re all in this together, and we are proud to take care of our own.”

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A post shared by Southern Smoke (@southernsmoketx) on Sep 21, 2020 at 5:57pm PDT

"Southern Smoke has been the silver lining—not only during COVID-19, but of my entire career. I’m just a cook. I never thought anything I did would have the kind of impact on our industry as Southern Smoke has had. Thanks to our incredible staff, we’ve changed more than 1,800 lives this year," Shepherd shared with Southern Living. "And since 2017, we’ve provided a safety net for people in our industry who are always the first people to help in a crisis—and now we’re able to help them. We’re far from the end of the COVID-19 crisis, and restaurants are still in peril. If you need assistance, please apply. We are here to help you. If you’re able, donate a little to Southern Smoke. Your contributions are saving lives." You can donate to Southern Smoke's Emergency Relief Fund here.

Thus far, Southern Smoke has given out the money both directly to people in need via the Emergency Relief Fund and "to organizations that represent the needs of people in our industry," according to a Southern Smoke press release. To help look after the mental health of restaurant industry workers, much is also in the works. In June, Southern Smoke formed a partnership with Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the University of Houston Psychology Department to provide free mental healthcare to everyone in the food and beverage industry in Texas and their children. Due to this program's resounding demand (there's currently a waitlist to see a mental health provider), the organization is looking to grow and expand the initiative in Texas and across other states.

Out of these dark times, all of this positive momentum for the restaurant industry is pretty incredible. As Shepherd beautifully summed up Southern Smoke's efforts, "We’re all in this together, and we are proud to take care of our own.” 

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