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American Express and Resy Donate $500K to The Southern Smoke Foundation

March 17, 2022

Chris Shepherd, James Beard award-winning chef and Co-Founder of Southern Smoke, says “We have to be there for the industry.”

For many, there’s no greater joy than dining out. It’s an experience where after two years of the pandemic, one reservation can mean reuniting for the first-time with a loved one or toasting to a long-awaited celebration.  For restaurants, it’s an opportunity to get back on their feet and welcome back staff and communities.

To help support independent restaurants across the United States, American Express and Resy launched “Every Resy Counts”, a reservation drive with the goal of encouraging millions of people to dine out during the month of March. Three million reservations and counting have been made through the program since its launch. After reaching one million reservations, American Express and Resy donated $500,000 to Southern Smoke, a crisis relief organization supporting the food and beverage industry.

Southern Smoke established an emergency relief fund in 2017 to help restaurant and bar workers in crisis.  Workers can apply to the fund for help with family assistance and mental health needs as well as covering costs related to medical bills, car accidents, and weather-related catastrophes.  

For a recent interview, Resy talked to Chris Shepherd, James Beard award-winning chef and Co-Founder of Southern Smoke, about the focus of the foundation, how the organization intends to help the industry, and how he sees communities stepping up to support restaurants and restaurant workers:

Tell us a bit about your work with Southern Smoke through COVID. Were people taking advantage of the emergency relief program?  

In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey came through, we took in 200-some applications, like 230, and granted 139 families half a million dollars. And I said, we need to keep going with this, because we don’t have a safety net in our industry. But those first few months of 2020, when COVID came through? We were at 35,000 applications.

That helps to answer my next question. Not to talk finances, but what does $500,000 do to help people at that national scale?

Since we started this, we’ve granted over $9.7 million. So what does a half a million dollars do? A lot. It helps a lot of people.

We may not always be dealing with COVID crises but we will be dealing with crises. I just saw on Instagram just today that a chef in Boston, one of his staff’s house caught on fire. He lost everything. And I was like, just start here. 

Whatever it may be, it’s there to give you a little help, a little hand. To be like, hey man, there’s somebody in the industry that will watch you, and help you through things. And if we can’t, we’ll send you the right ways.

People say, we’re coming out of COVID. But we’re not coming out of problems. Our industry is always in turmoil, in some aspect.

It sounds like the work has expanded, beyond just giving people cash. 

We now provide free mental health care to anybody in the hospitality industry in the state of Texas — and their kids. And we’re growing that into Louisiana, into California. Our goal is, by 2027 or 2028, I want to have that across the country. 

One other thing 2020 showed us was how fragile restaurants are. Do you see communities stepping up to support restaurants and restaurant workers? Do people understand now that if you don’t take care of these things, they won’t be there?

People saw that, right?  It was clear as day. I think that at the very beginning of 2020 when COVID came through, people became really generous and very thoughtful. 

But now people think restaurants are back up and running, and it’s super busy. It’s not that simple. Prices of everything have gone up. We’re still having to pay back all the things we took it on the chin for, for two years. I think that the consumer is a little bit more understanding, but not that much. The industry is starting to see the effect of the past two years. And that’s when companies like Amex and Resy step up huge to say, this has to change. We have to be there for the industry. 

That’s one of the beautiful things we’re starting to see more of. We see how it got broken. Now, how do we fix it?  Because we absolutely know this can happen again real quick. So how do you build an infrastructure around it? I think that’s where Southern Smoke has come in. To make sure that when there’s crisis that does happen, that there’s an infrastructure for people, and we can get it done quick. 

My team doesn’t like to hear me say this, but my goal is to reach the point where we’re not needed. 

I know for you, there’s a lot of importance in paying it forward. Not simply in terms of crisis relief, but also as a restaurateur who’s had a certain amount of success. I’m wondering, how do you navigate that? The notion of large-scale success for a chef is still a very recent thing, so shining a light on smaller fish in the sea still seems rare in the industry. How do you help out small businesses around you? 

There’s this little Ukrainian bakery in San Antonio that somebody posted about. They’re giving all their money back to the country. And I called and said, hey, can I just buy a bunch of stuff? And they’re like, well, you have to pick it up. So I say, how about I just buy a gift card and you swipe that gift card for however long, for the next 20 people that come in. It’s on me. And they’re like, seriously? And I’m like, yeah. Or just take the money. 

So it’s about paying forward in little things, supporting smaller companies. Taking care of things that people may see as trivial.  Making sure we all just step up. It doesn’t take that much time or effort to make a phone call or go by or make a reservation. Whatever it may be. It’s about, as a community, when somebody does something you can feel as support. That bakery has no idea who I am. It doesn’t matter. It’s what was right. It’s about giving somebody the feeling that they’re justified in what they’re doing. You can do that in your community. It starts there.  

To read the full interview on Resy, visit here.

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