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Cash Grants Provide a Lifeline for Houston’s Restaurant Community

How one group distributed $500K to business owners and workers in need

Pitmaster Rodney Scott at this year’s Southern Smoke event.
Michelle Watson/CatchLight, courtesy Southern Smoke
Amy McCarthy is a reporter at, focusing on pop culture, policy and labor, and only the weirdest online trends.

In the days leading up to August 26, 2017, James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu was getting ready to open a restaurant in Houston, Texas. He’d shuttered his iconic restaurant Oxheart earlier that year, and was close to debuting his latest, more casual concept Theodore Rex. But when Hurricane Harvey made landfall, those plans changed immediately. As the storm hit Houston, Yu’s building near Downtown was flooded with water.

I thought it was going to be a total loss,” he says. “I had just installed cameras inside the restaurant for the first time ever, and I watched the water go up throughout the night. There was a point where I looked up and saw a Red Cross helicopter flying above, and it stopped right where the restaurant would be. I looked over and saw a trash can floating by, and knew that it was just not going to be safe to get into the restaurant.”

Despite extensive damage to Theodore Rex — the walls had to be ripped out, a significant portion of the wine inventory was ruined, even servers’ uniforms and the kitchen’s cookbooks were destroyed — Yu was still one of the lucky ones. In the hours and days after Hurricane Harvey, one thing was immediately clear: The damage was vast. Estimates suggest damage of up to $125 billion, not counting the more recent economic fallout, making it the most costly hurricane on record in the United States.

The night that Harvey hit, chef Chris Shepherd — the Houston culinary torchbearer behind acclaimed restaurants Underbelly, One Fifth, and the Hay Merchant — housed three of his cooks, a manager, and his chef de cuisine because they weren’t able to make it home as the waters rose across the city. By the end of it all, two of his employees had lost everything. “Houstonians are fighters, and we are going to fight for our city,” Shepherd said in a statement issued shortly after Harvey’s landfall. “It’s going to take a lot to make Houston whole again.”

In Harvey’s aftermath, thousands of Houstonians immediately jumped into the relief effort, whether cooking for displaced storm victims or using kayaks to deliver pizza to people trapped in their homes. The Red Cross was on the ground, setting up shelters and passing out meals. Chef José Andrés flew into Dallas, then drove immediately to Houston, stopping at Target along the way to buy a cart full of pasta and other cooking supplies.

But longer-term, getting back to normal requires one very important thing: money. According to the Center for International Disaster Information, a division of USAID, cash donations after natural disasters ensure that victims can buy exactly what they need, pay for crucial expenses like mortgages, temporary shelter, and auto loans, and in many cases, help stimulate the local economy. Restaurant workers, who wouldn’t be able to make up wages lost when their employers closed because of the storm, were especially in need of assistance. (Paired with Hurricane Irma, Harvey contributed to the loss of 105,000 restaurant industry jobs, the largest one-month decline on record.)

To recoup some of his losses, Yu was one of more than 100 applicants who sought aid from the Southern Smoke Foundation. Originally, Shepard started the nonprofit foundation to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research after a friend was diagnosed with the disease; fundraising centered around an annual barbecue event that drew outside talent like David Chang, Ashley Christensen, and Aaron Franklin to Houston. But last year, Shepherd knew that servers, cooks, and bussers would be uniquely vulnerable in the aftermath of Harvey, and decided to donate Southern Smoke’s proceeds directly to service industry professionals impacted by the storm. The organization set an aggressive fundraising goal of $500,000, and on the day of the event in October, announced that Southern Smoke had exceeded its goal by $1,000.

“Entire businesses being taken out by the storm was a theme across the board,” says Kathryn Lott, executive director of Southern Smoke Foundation. “Maybe more than their homes being damaged. There was a lack of available work hours.” Yu, an independent restaurant owner, was trying to keep his staff paid while being unable to open his much-anticipated new restaurant. Yu offered his employees an hourly rate to come in and help clean up, and costs were mounting. He estimates that, inclusive of lost business and repairs to his building, the storm cost him $50,000.

“I didn’t want someone more deserving than me to not be able to get the help they needed, but there was a reason they were raising the money — for people like myself and the people I work with,” Yu says. “My employees didn’t have a place to work, and I want to be able to take care of the people that work with me and take care of myself. People were out there giving with a full heart, and these resources were there to help all of us out just a little bit.”

Flooding in Houston on August 30, 2017.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

About a month after the hurricane hit, Southern Smoke began accepting applications for grants provided by its Hospitality Assistance Fund. Only service industry employees, including servers, cooks, bussers, restaurant owners, and employees of restaurant supply companies and vendors (like produce delivery drivers, brewery employees, and farmers), were eligible to apply for the assistance, which was distributed in $1,000 increments according to each applicant’s need.

One of those applicants was Ryan Savoie, the executive chef at Houston’s much-lauded Saint Arnold Brewing Company. Savoie and his wife live about a mile north of the brewery, and their home sustained at least $20,000 in damage after the storm (that’s only counting the current construction costs — there are definitely more to come). It was damage that Savoie didn’t see coming, especially after he went to bed on the first night of the storm and their home was completely safe.

The next morning, though, more than a foot of water had accumulated throughout the house. “I woke up to it,” he says. “I’ve thought about it since then, and I think I preferred it that way. If I had been awake while all that was happening, I would have freaked out pretty hard. We’re not in a flood area, and in our neighborhood, there’s probably only four or five blocks that actually flooded. Our neighbor has lived there since the ’50s said she’s never seen anything like it.” After salvaging as much as they could, Savoie and his wife stayed with friends in Lindale Park, a nearby neighborhood that escaped the storm almost entirely unscathed.

Savoie didn’t think that he would qualify for any aid because the damage was so severe for so many people across the city. According to Lott, that was a common refrain. “A lot of people hesitated to ask for much because Houstonians are so humble,” she says. “They knew there were so many people who had gone through ‘worse.’”

To help dole out the funds, the Southern Smoke Foundation partnered with Legacy Community Health, a Houston-based nonprofit that provides healthcare access, social services, and medical assistance to people in need. Southern Smoke employed two different, completely anonymous committees — one to verify the information provided on each application, and another to assess how funds were to be distributed. Once the committee was assembled, then came the work of actually reviewing the applications. Of 161 applications received, 139 checks ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 were written.

According to Lott, anonymity ensured that each person’s need was assessed fairly. “Because the awards committee was going to be made up of some folks from the restaurant industry, we didn’t want anyone to be moved unfairly to vote a certain way,” Lott says, noting she personally spent hours redacting personal information from each application, trying to keep the committee members as neutral as possible. “It was a high-maintenance decision, but I think ethically it was the right choice.”

It’s nearly five months after Harvey, and Savoie still can’t live in his home due to construction delays. The walls and floors in his home had to be completely torn out and replaced, and the space requires a number of electrical repairs. Savoie plans to use the funds he received to help replace the furniture, refrigerator, and other appliances that were damaged — as soon as he can get back into his home.

Along with the physical damage to homes and cars, Lott also says that recipients of Southern Smoke funds have also reported struggling to make enough money at work. Combining these two major factors — piling expenses and the inability to work enough to pay for them — made Southern Smoke’s offer of straight-up cash particularly effective in the months following a natural disaster.

Like the people it has helped, the Southern Smoke Foundation is still figuring out what’s next. Shepherd still intends to raise funds for the National MS Society, but the organization also has plans to expand its efforts in the coming years. “We do realize that the foundation has a lot of potential, but what we don’t know yet is how exactly we’re going to exercise that potential or what direction it’s going to go,” Lott says. “This is Chris’s baby and his vision and as soon as he’s done opening his next 10 restaurants, we’re going to think about more. We’ve identified that there is potential to carry some more weight on the back of this Foundation.”

But for now, the boost of in-pocket cash is helping grant recipients get back to normal. “To get this money, it’s just incredible,” says Omari West-Griffen, a server, who received a grant from Southern Smoke after Harvey shuttered the Downtown location of Spaghetti Warehouse where he was employed. “It gives me my independence back, helps me provide for my three girls a little better. It gets me back on my feet, and that means a lot… I love the restaurant business, it’s what I’ve done most of my adult life and I want to get back into it. You get the chance to make other people’s day better. That’s a great feeling.”

Amy McCarthy is editor of Eater Houston and Eater Dallas.
Editor: Erin DeJesus