Southern Smoke: From Dinner Fundraiser to Charitable Powerhouse

Chef Chris Shepherd tells Bar & Restaurant about his $10M charity, Southern Smoke Foundation, and how they're supporting industry workers in crisis. (Catchlight Photography )

Southern Smoke Foundation officially launched in 2015 as a fundraiser for the MS Society. Chef Chris Shepherd had been hosting a series of dinners at his restaurants to raise money for various causes. One night, his friend and colleague, Antonio Gianola, asked if they could do one for the MS Society. Shepherd was quick to agree, and only after found out that Gianola had just been diagnosed with the disease, which targets the brain and central nervous system. “Just months prior to that we lost a chef who had been diagnosed to suicide, and I knew we were going to want to do something much larger than a dinner for the cause,” explains Shepherd over email.

He and his now-wife, Lindsey Brown, took action. They went to the Houston Mayor’s office to talk logistics, and they called a few friends (think Rodney Scott, Aaron Franklin and Sean Brock). “Long story short—before we knew it, we had a festival on our hands, and it proved very, very successful.” They donated $181,000 to the MS Society that year. It became an annual event, until Hurricane Harvey decimated the gulf coast in 2017 and they decided to pivot. “That storm brought Houston to its knees and I knew we had to find a way to get money directly into the hands of the people who worked for this industry—fast.”

And that’s how Southern Smoke was formed. They launched the Emergency Relief Fund, and quickly began serving industry workers in crisis around the country.

Bar & Restaurant is honored to announce that Southern Smoke is one of our charity partners at this year’s Nightclub & Bar Show. The Nightclub & Bar Show is donating $12,500 to each of our charity partners, CORE: Children of Restaurant Employees and Southern Smoke, to support their missions.

Read on to hear about more about their work, and how they’re helping the people of the hospitality industry recover after COVID-19.

How did a simple fundraiser become such a powerful champion of the industry?

This was all a beautiful accident. Immediately after distributing funds from the Hurricane Harvey campaign, we turned our focus to our friends who were suffering in Napa and Sonoma from fires that were ravaging their businesses and their personal properties. It was so evident that there wasn’t a safety net for our industry that could serve in the way we wanted to when help was needed. So, it became a 24/7 operation, and we haven’t stopped since. As people see the amount of money going to human beings that are so desperately in need, and how seriously we take our responsibility as stewards of the funds that are entrusted to us, the more people want to be involved. My friends are all so supportive and I am just lucky enough that they happen to have platforms of their own to come and help. I had no idea that David Chang was going to win a million dollars on a TV show. And honestly chefs and restaurants around the country have rolled up their sleeves and held (big and small) fundraisers on our behalf throughout COVID-19 because we all just want to help in some way.

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Did you ever imagine Southern Smoke would become as big as it is now? 

Ha! We had a board meeting at the beginning of 2020 and our dream was to see the organization become a $3 million organization in the next three years. We closed 2020 as a $10 million + organization. As long as the need is there, we will answer the call. But our true hope is that one day we won’t be needed any longer. 

Do you know how many people you’ve helped since 2015, or how much money you’ve re-allocated? 

We have a live ticker on our website that states exactly how much money has been distributed since 2015 so that everyone can see what we are doing. We welcome people to come into our business and see how their investment in this community is being spent. To date, we have distributed $7,996,923 and we have grants going out every day, so by the time your readers see this, I am confident we will have distributed $8 million dollars. [Editor’s note: at the time of publishing, Southern Smoke has distributed $8,117,663]

What motivates you team to work as tirelessly as you do, everyday? 

I don’t know another way, honestly. It’s what cooking and being a chef is about. As an industry, we are constantly giving back. If you think about it, the restaurant industry workers are the ones that arrive right behind the first responders during every crisis. We feed them, the hospital workers, the shelters, and the hungry. You don’t hear much about it because it’s just what we do. We are really fortunate that people are talking about, and giving to, Southern Smoke. But what motivates me is that there are people in need. I will always do anything I can to help—always.

RELATED: Meet CORE: The Charity Protecting Service Industry Families

How do you serve the community, and who is eligible for assistance?

We serve everyone in the “food chain”. If you have worked in food and beverage for at least six months (either prior to COVID-19 or since) for an average of 30-hours per week, you qualify. If you are a farmer, beer truck driver, hostess, winemaker, bartender or distillery owner—everyone in this industry is eligible. And the way we serve you is by putting enough money in your bank account to get you up and out of crisis. There is no cap on our grant amount—if it takes $100,000 to keep you alive, we will get you $100,000. If you just need $200 to get your electricity back on, we will give you $200. Each case is assessed and decided upon based on the individual’s crisis at hand.

In what ways has your charity evolved to suit the needs of the industry throughout COVID-19?

We grew. A lot. At one point, we had 47 employees. And when we were discussing just how to grow in such an uncertain time, we just looked at our mission and the answer was pretty clear. We are here to support people in the food and beverage industry who are in crisis. And who needed jobs? Food and beverage workers who had been furloughed or let go due to COVID-19. We trained them to be case workers, application screeners, processors, etc... There are 21 people working full time for Southern Smoke now.

About how much support does the average person who comes to you need, financially?

Well, that has changed pretty significantly. Throughout most of COVID-19, it was about $2,000 per household, but now that rent forgiveness is being lifted in various states and counties across the nation, we are helping people with between 6-10 months of rent. So, rather than the average gift decreasing as we all get back to normal, the need is really far greater now than it has ever been.

RELATED: Watch Southern Smoke on EVOLVE

When you think of the people Southern Smoke has helped, who sticks out in your mind?

There are so many examples. At one point we were funding midwives for families in NYC because hospitals weren’t allowing childbirth in the city, due to being overwhelmed and fearful of COVID-19. We have helped women and children flee domestic violence situations and we have helped so, so many that are here in the U.S. working legally but are not yet eligible for government assistance. A few months back, we granted an industry veteran (server of 30 years) over $43,000 so that he could get access to the medical treatment he needed to overcome a virus that had infected his nervous system. Without that funding, he would never have any hope of one day becoming self-sufficient. We are very confident that he’s in the right hands and getting the best help there is. The interesting thing there is that the doctor's greatest success when doing memory therapy with him has been from all the recipes that he had written on coasters and beverage napkins throughout his years working in Chicago restaurants. 

What’s the biggest challenge you see the service industry facing right now, and how are you trying to help?

We have been dedicated to mental health for a few years now, but recently we were able to launch our free mental health program in Texas, giving people access to free mental healthcare for them and their children. We are fine-tuning that program and we hope to replicate it throughout the nation as responsibly and as quickly as we can with the right partners.

What’s a message you want people in the industry to hear? 

"Taking care of our own” is our tagline. If you have a little, give. If you need a little, apply.

How are you feeling about Nightclub & Bar Show 2021? 

This is our first time participating in this event. We are super excited about getting to meet so many awesome people and we will hopefully make a lot of new friends along the way. But ultimately, we are just honored to be supported in such a cool way. Thank you.

Apply for a grant or make a donation to Southern Smoke Foundation through their website, www.southernsmoke.org. You can also make in-person donations at this year’s Nightclub & Bar Show, happening June 28 – 30, 2021 at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Get your tickets online now, before they’re sold out!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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