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Chris Shepherd On Helping Out Restaurant Workers In Houston, And Beyond

Raising million of dollars for bills, medical costs, and mental health care in the crisis.

Chris Shepherd is chef/owner of Houston restaurant group Underbelly Hospitality. More than 100,000 restaurant, bar, and cafe employees lost their jobs in the Houston area as a result of the pandemic, and Shepherd’s Southern Smoke relief fund helps food service workers overcome financial and mental health challenges. To date, the fund has distributed more than $5.8 million to those who need it.

Some days, we were awarding $150,000 a day. People were in such devastation. Fathers who couldn’t afford to take care of their kids, so they had their kids spread out and they’d be homeless. We have to fix that.

In 2015, we were doing these dinners to raise money for culinary scholarships. A friend of mine—Antonio Gianola, we’d worked together for a long time—came in and he’d be the garçon for me. We did the dinners, and put a kid through school. Antonio asked me, “Are you gonna do these dinners again? Can we do one for MS?” And I was like “Yeah, what’s the tie in?” He said he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis that week, but people with MS don’t generally talk about it. So there’s a large amount of depression, and he wanted people to understand what he’s going through so they’ll ask and check on him. The money’s not for him—it’s to raise awareness and to put money into the foundation to find a cure.

We needed to do something big. We were going to do a barbeque in the back parking lot. So I thought, who do I know? Who’d be down for this? I called Aaron Franklin. And Sean Brock and Rodney Scott. We needed to get the sidewalks closed off, and so I went to the mayor’s department for special events. And they were like, “What are you doing? Let’s throw a festival.”

I said we’re going to raise a hundred thousand dollars. And everyone was like, “You need to shut up.” The night of the festival, it went off like the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, that I’ve ever done. And we were able to cut a check to the National MS Society for $181,000. Year two, I call some more friends, and we make it bigger. That’s how we do things in Texas. And we donated $284,000 that year. Then year three came in, and we brought in Kathryn Lott, who’s now our director for Southern Smoke. She took it in a different way, like, “Hey guys, you can get sponsorships, you can sell these things. You can start to make actual money.”

We were a month and a half out from our third festival, and Hurricane Harvey came through Houston and devastated our city. It really hurt us in a way I’d never seen. I started getting calls from friends—”Are you okay? Are your staff okay? How do we put money in the hands of people in the hospitality industry?”

You can’t just walk out and give someone $20. It doesn’t work that way. So I told our team we need to figure out a way to take care of these people in our industry. Whether they grow carrots, stock the milk, deliver the wine. Bussers, waiters, cooks, I don’t care.

Chris Shepherd with aa giant $500,000 check for Hurricane Harvey relief raised by Southern Smoke in 2017.

We got an application system online in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. These would go through a verifying committee, and an awarding committee. We took in—and this is a number I’ll stress—a little under 200 applications. We’re able to grant half a million dollars to those individuals. The next year we continued that, and took a big chunk to put to the National MS Society as always. And we figured we needed a foundation that goes year round, because we need a safety net for people in the city. I was very passionate about taking care of Houston and surrounding areas. We have to focus on our city.

We did that for two years. Then COVID came through. We had to cancel Southern Smoke Spring. Everyone started getting laid off. I furloughed 170 employees when the city came in and said, “Hey, shut it all down.” Southern Smoke really kicked into gear then. Applications started flooding in. Not just in Houston. This is why I go back to that 200 applications from earlier—within a matter of weeks, we had 28,000 applications. And went from a staff of 2 to a staff of 40.

People who’d been furloughed or lost their jobs—bartenders, waiters, managers, cooks, whatever—we trained them to become case workers. We trained them to be compassionate, and listen to what’s going on in people’s lives. The caseworking situation might be the hardest, because they’re really dealing with people at their worst time. It does take a toll, but nothing’s more rewarding than when you can help somebody out.

Everyone’s shoveling cash into this because it’s the only fund set up to specifically help folks in the hospitality industry. Food & Wine came on as a sponsor. The Texans football team gave us money. At one point in August, the James Beard Foundation came to me and said we want to talk to your director. An anonymous donor—Kathryn, our executive director, is the only one who knows who this is—donated $4 million for restaurant, bar, and coffee workers in the city of Chicago and Cook County. And they said if the city could raise another million, then they’d match it, which would bring the fund up to $6 million.

Since March, we’ve helped over 3,000 families with over $3.2 million. We average about $2,000 a person. We’ve done it from $200 to $100,000, depending on the scenario. It could be for medication, their kid’s school, or keeping a roof over their head. You see these scenarios and you think, gah, it’s so heart-wrenching. I’d be like, ah, you need this? Let’s go. You don’t work in the industry, but are going through tough times? I’ll take care of you. That’s just me. If I get a letter that someone writes, I see that, but I do not get to see specific names or scenarios. And I do not get to see how people get funded.

One I do know of, because they wanted me to know. This was right after 2018’s festival. Kathryn calls me, and she says, “I need your approval to go to the board right now. We have a gentleman who was in a motorcycle accident a month ago, and has just gone through his fourth brain surgery, and his insurance is up. And they’ve told his mother she either needs to put him into a rehabilitation facility in Houston, or she can put him into a hospice and watch him die.” His mother couldn’t sell her home fast enough because they had two days to get this done. I couldn’t imagine it. I was like, “Well, can I meet him?”

I didn’t know what I was getting into. Elevator doors open up, we walk out, and the nurses are huddled. In a circle. In tears. Walking in there, and seeing him—tubes in his head, no way he could be released from hospital the next day. We were able to walk in and give him a check for $98,000 so that he could go into rehab, so his mom didn’t have to watch him pass. He’s still got a long way to go, but he’s up and walking again now. Came to my house with his mom for dinner not long ago. It’s those kinds of things where we see that we saved a life—for me, that’s the power of what we can do as people.

One of my biggest and proudest moments finally came to fruition in June. Through Mental Health America and the University of Houston, Southern Smoke was able to grant free mental healthcare for anyone in the hospitality industry for the state of Texas and their children. It gives them counselling, gives them someone to talk to. It’s all students finishing at UOH, getting their PhDs. They have to do some kind of real-life work, so they work with us. It’s amazing. It really is something special.

Initially, I did a lecture for about 500 people with UOH. They asked, “What is it like in the hospitality industry?” We put this video together of a Friday service, and everybody’s like, whoa. And they ask, “How do you turn that off? At 11:30 when service is done, how do you turn that off?” This is why we need to talk. If you don’t have the conversation, it doesn’t start. Mental health has been a taboo forever, and now it can’t be.

It’s self-anointed pressure. It’s the industry itself. I don’t think reviews are the best, or that stars are great. If you ask me if I want Michelin to come to Houston—no, I don’t. I don’t want that pressure. I want to create good food and give it to people. I don’t need anyone Yelping at me, telling me how I’m such a dirtbag, or how their dog can cook better than me. I think that starts to drive a lot of that pressure for people. I haven’t read a Yelp review in 10 years. You can go down really bad wormholes and get depressed when you see what people will call you because they’re not saying it to your face. I think the internet is a bad place for that, and young managers and cooks tend to look at that stuff, and they start to believe it instead of having self-confidence. At 3 a.m., when you’re sitting alone by yourself—that can be a very dark place.

Eight years ago, I was the one barking, complaining, “Why can’t you do this right?” Cooks think it’s the lifestyle because it’s what they’ve seen on TV. Now, if I have to yell, then I didn’t teach it well enough. It’s about teaching and learning, because our industry’s going to be in a real bad place if we can’t build up to be better. Respect, love, and nurture. And it starts with us at the top.

I tell my team all the time—you may think of this as a carrot. But somebody made the soil perfect for that carrot, and nurtured that seed, broke their back to get it out of the ground, and took it to market. We went and paid for it. And then you burned it. You can’t do that. Show respect for the product, and you’ll be all right. Take them to the farm, or a ranch. Let them see it. Then cooks start to be better.