“The big milestones are cool. They don’t matter unless we get everybody taken care of, though.”
Chris Shepherd has reason to celebrate. The Southern Smoke Foundation, the charity he started that raises money to support hospitality workers in crisis, recently received a $1 million donation from the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for a better living and working standards for hospitality workers.
“That fundraising effort is so big,” Shepherd tells CultureMap. “They’re killing it, and it’s awesome. It’s a big influx of cash, but we need it.”
As the chef notes, the organization, which began offering cash assistance to workers after Hurricane Harvey, received fewer than 300 applications after the storm. As of last week, the requests for assistance had reached 17,000.
To meet the demand, executive director Kathryn Lott has hired 30 new staffers — all of them furloughed restaurant employees — to review applications. That’s allowed the organization to process between 35 and 45 applications per day. So far, Southern Smoke has awarded over $600,000 to more than 300 people.
Those funds have come from a variety of sources: everything from an auction of rare bourbons by Texas photographer Robert Jacob Lerma to a raffle for a barbecue dream package by pitmaker Mill Scale Metalworks. Karbach Brewing Co. recently announced that it will donate $1 to Southern Smoke for every case equivalent (24 cans) of Love Street sold to-go by bars and restaurants; the company told CultureMap it hopes to raise up to $100,000 through the effort.
“The private donations are awesome,” Shepherd says. “It’s the ones you get in that are $5,000 or $1,000 or 5 bucks. It’s amazing to see what people are doing.”
Priority for assistance goes to people with medical emergencies or who are in urgent need of shelter. For example, someone who can’t afford life-saving medication will receive funds more quickly than someone who needs help making a car payment.
“It starts with medical things work and then it works its way back,” Shepherd says. “That’s the only way it can work.”
Recipients are anonymous, but one woman posted to Facebook that the organization had saved her and her some from homelessness. Southern Smoke shared the post on its social media feeds.
“That brought me to fucking tears,” Shepherd says. “Like, legitimate tears. That’s why we do this.”
Applicants whose situations have changed in some way are encouraged to contact the organization via email. Shepherd says he’s proud of the progress the organization has made in the face of such overwhelming demand.
“I think what Kathryn and the team are doing is the exact right way for this to happen. It may seem slow to people. The system was set up to handle eight to 10 applications per week. Not 4,000 [or] 17,000 in two weeks,” he says.
“I keep telling them how good they are and how good they’re doing. I wish I could help them, but I’ll be the one who stands out front and says let’s raise some money. If you got a little extra, donate it. If you don’t got it, apply for it. We’ll help each other out. We’ll get there.”