With the support of the James Beard Foundation and a group of anonymous donors, the Chicago Restaurant Workers Relief Fund already has $4 million in funds available. In addition, those donors will match up to $1 million in additional donations to give the fund a total of $6 million, and they've agreed to cover all administrative costs associated with the fund. The foundation cites a study by McKinsey & Co that estimates nearly half a million food service jobs in the Chicago metro area are at risk due to the economic slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic.
Founded by Houston chef Chris Shepherd, the Southern Smoke Foundation provides emergency relief funds to hospitality workers in dire situations. Since the start of the pandemic, the foundation has issued over $2.9 million in grants to over 2,200 people nationwide. The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards recognized Shepherd's efforts with its Hero Award.
To be eligible for the Chicago fund, a person must be able to demonstrate (through documentation such as pay stubs or a W-2) that they worked at least 30 hours a week for at least six months in a Chicago-area bar or restaurant. The foundation does not have a cap on specific award amounts, but life and death cases take priority.
“We want the people of Chicago to know that they can depend on us and that we are committed to supporting them with both conviction and compassion in every way possible,” Southern Smoke executive director Kathryn Lott said in a statement. “It is our obligation to gain the trust of the people we are here to serve in order for them to feel safe enough to ask us for help."
To help administer the fund, Southern Smoke is seeking to hire Chicago-based restaurant workers to fill roles such as caseworkers, application screeners, and communication specialists. The positions pay $15 per hour.
"This dedicated fund for Cook County will not only allow us to invest in the community by financially serving restaurant workers who are in crisis, but it also allows us to create employment opportunities for furloughed and unemployed workers so that they may serve their own community," Lott added. "This also enables Southern Smoke to form meaningful partnerships and collaborations with Chicago-rooted, locally trusted chefs, restaurant groups, advocacy organizations, fellow nonprofits and more.”
Prior to establishing its Chicago-specific fund, Southern Smoke had granted over $46,000 to 22 area hospitality workers. Ruth Rodriguez, a Chicago-based server, received a grant of $2,490, which covered two car payments, rent, and utilities. Chicago cook Michael Shawn Clendening Jr. received $1,750 from Southern Smoke for rent. In a release provided by the foundation, he expressed enthusiasm for the fund.
“Southern Smoke Chicago will be a huge help, especially in the South and Westside communities, which have become food deserts and disproportionately funded which fuels Chicago’s obvious neighborhood segregation,” he said.