'Restaurant workers are not OK' during the pandemic is the message from famed chef

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- "Restaurant workers are not OK" -- that is the message from Chris Shepherd's non-profit Southern Smoke Foundation.

The organization, created by the world-renowned culinary king, established an emergency relief fund after Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Their mission was to help food and beverage employees impacted by natural disaster. The group never anticipated a relief operation on this scale.

"When the rodeo shut down, that's really when we realized that this was going to be a massive ordeal," said Kathryn Lott, the executive director for Southern Smoke Foundation.

The foundation has exploded in growth over the course of the pandemic, but Lott is quick to point out the truth behind their growth means the current crisis is growing.

Lott explained, "We all felt like, here we are at sea and there's all of these people out there drowning in this storm with their hands up, and it's up to us to say, 'OK, who's first?'"

Lott was the sole employee of the foundation in January 2020 and has since hired 40 case workers to process thousands of applications. Each case worker is a furloughed industry worker, listening to the stories of their peers in need.

"Our case managers truly know what these people are going through," she said. "They are in crisis themselves."

According to Lott, their emergency relief fund is strictly providing financial assistance to employees in every corner of the food and beverage industry, from farmers and ranchers, to busboys and dishwashers.

"In order for us to help all 30,000 applicants in our portal right now, we would have to ... have $42 million," Lott said.

So far, they have distributed $3.2 million to 1,700 people across the country giving each recipient on average $2,000.

They pay out funds on a case-by-case basis, meeting the most urgent requests first.

And as the pandemic settles in for months longer than anyone anticipated, she says those urgent requests have grown.

"What we're seeing now is people who refused to ask for help in the beginning, they've gone through their savings, they've hit their entire credit limit, they are tapped out and they are so far in debt that there is no end in sight for them," Lott said. "This will be something that they have to climb out of for years and years to come."

The foundation recently released an op-ed post asking for the federal government to step in and assist these employees hit hardest by the pandemic shutdowns.

"We know that we need the government to come up with a federal plan. We know that that's imperative," Lott said.

In the meantime, their work continues. They've established a second emergency relief fund, paying out $5 million strictly for Chicago-area employees in need. The foundation hired another 40 furloughed workers there as case managers.

And for Texas employees in crisis, they can access free mental health through the foundation.

Southern Smoke partnered with University of Houston and Mental Health America Houston to provide counseling for employees and their children.

The foundation runs solely on donations and is always accepting. If you'd like to donate, or want to apply for help, visit the Southern Smoke Foundation's website.
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