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Houston’s Southern Smoke Foundation Gears Up to Help the Restaurant Industry During the Coronavirus Pandemic

The organization is preparing to disburse money to hospitality industry professionals and restaurant owners in need

Chef Chris Shepherd founded the Southern Smoke Foundation in 2015
Catchlight Photography for Southern Smoke

As coronavirus precautions close some restaurants and force others to focus on takeout and delivery, chef Chris Shepherd’s nonprofit Southern Smoke Foundation is gearing up to help restaurant owners and hospitality industry professionals weather the coming weeks.

According to Southern Smoke Foundation executive director Kathryn Lott, the organization is currently accepting both donations and applications from restaurant owners and service industry workers who are dealing with closed businesses or significant declines in revenue. “What we’re seeing now is fear. Just total fear,” Lott tells Eater. “This industry is so insular, and the culture is that people become like family. That mentality means that I have a lot of people reaching out to me who are worried about their employees, their family, and their friends.”

The Foundation has been on high alert since early March, when officials in Austin canceled the city’s massive South By Southwest festival. Once the cancellation was announced, Southern Smoke created the Austin Relief Fund in partnership with Austin-based PR firm Giant Noise, which will earmark funds to directly benefit the hospitality industry in Capitol City. Then there’s the Emergency Relief Fund, which Southern Smoke operates year-round to assist hospitality professionals in crisis.

Right now, though, Southern Smoke isn’t disbursing any funds just yet. Instead, Lott and her team are “taking a pause” to ensure that they’ll have enough funds to help as many people as possible as the spread of coronavirus continues. “My plan is to make investments that make the most impact,” Lott says. “We want to make sure we have a snapshot of the full picture before we start throwing out money and depleting our funds before we truly know what we’re up against.”

As Lott notes, the organization is itself in a moment of crisis. On the heels of cancelling its spring fundraiser, which was expected to raise more than $200,000 for the organization’s Emergency Relief Fund, Lott is a little bit nervous about what’s coming next. “I’m trying to stay poised and not undo any of the hard work that has already been done, and trusting our system to respond to the crisis at hand,” she says. “I get that people are really scared, but we have to make sure that the funds are going to people who truly meet the definition of ‘crisis.’”

Crisis isn’t anything new for the Southern Smoke Foundation. Originally founded as a fundraiser to raise money for multiple sclerosis research, the organization shifted its focus to disaster relief in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Following the storm, Southern Smoke donated more than $500,000 to hospitality industry professionals in need, and now keeps its Emergency Relief Fund open year-round to help people in the industry pay for everything from rent to essential medications.

And that work will need to continue while the Foundation assists restaurants during the coronavirus outbreak. “We are a crisis relief organization, and we’re still dealing with crises from before this hit,” Lott says. “We have people who need surgery and cancer treatment, and all of that is still in the works. We are always looking to help everyone from the busboy and the bartender to the restaurant owner, and all of that need is going to have to be assessed and prioritized.”

At present, though, applications for assistance related to coronavirus are already starting to roll in, though Lott describes most of them as “fear-based” as opposed to reporting actual losses. That will likely change in the coming weeks, and as a result, the organization has issued a plea for donations, but hasn’t seen any major spike in funds coming in. “Our fundraising is already a little upside down, but it’s been super cool to see many people making small donations of $10 or $20,” she says. “It means a lot that someone would take the time to make sure they can help other people in the ways that they can.”

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