Chefs and Restaurants
When the Pandemic Hit, these Chefs and Restaurateurs Stepped Up to Serve
Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek: The LEE Initiative
Lindsey Ofcacek saw firsthand how the pandemic would impact restaurant workers the night before shelter-in-place orders began across the country. Ofcacek, the managing director of the Louisville-based LEE Initiative founded by Chef Edward Lee, was with the latest group of young women finishing the organization’s mentorship program.
“We were at Maker’s Mark on the last night of the program,” she recalls. “The next morning, they start calling me and they’re like, ‘They’re going to shut down restaurants. Do you think we could just stay for a couple days?’ They had all lost their jobs.”
That day, as they realized that restaurants would have to shut down immediately, “We looked around and were like, ‘We don’t want to lay off all of these people,’” Ofcacek says. “We have a ton of food to cook. We had fed TSA workers before, so we knew how to make it work. We also had access to distributors. We stocked up and opened the community kitchen two days later.”
Ofcacek and Lee transformed one of his Louisville restaurants, 610 Magnolia, into a community kitchen for restaurant workers who needed food and basic supplies. It was a quick response, one they thought was short-term.
“When we shut down in March, it was chaos; no one knew what was going on,” Lee says. “We thought we would do this for two or three weeks and then things would go back to normal. No one thought this was going to go on this long.”
Their partners at Maker’s Mark asked if they could expand the concept to other cities, noting that millions of people had lost their jobs.
“They said, ‘If we can find you some money, do you want to expand?’ We said yes, and the next day, they called and we were able to expand into five regions,” Lee recalls. “And in two weeks, we had opened in 20 cities.”
“You have to understand that at that time, I was the entire staff of LEE Initiative,” Ofcacek adds. “Then all of a sudden, we had to open 20 kitchens in two and a half weeks. We did not sleep for two weeks. It happened so fast that we couldn’t hire anyone to catch them up to what we were doing.”
The LEE Initiative partnered with chefs around the country including Edouardo Jordan in Seattle, Jessica Koslow in Los Angeles, Donald Link in New Orleans, and Ryan Lachaine in Houston to open community kitchens for restaurant workers.
“In a lot of places, we were the only food operation open at that point,” Lee says. “We were raising money and figuring out logistics all day, and at night, creating policies for how to make food for 600 people without the cooks being closer than six feet to each other. It takes a lot of thought to plan ahead. Then we’d sleep for a few hours, wake up and start over again.”
Six months later, Lee and Ofcacek are investigating long-term solutions. They launched a farm reboot program to help underwrite produce from farms that took a financial hit when restaurants shut down. They also transformed Lee’s casual MilkWood into the McAtee Community Kitchen, named for Louisville chef David McAtee, who was killed by police officers during the protests over the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings. And they are looking at how they can help with school lunch programs.
“We are in an economic tailspin right now,” Lee notes. “Even if there’s a vaccine tomorrow, there is still going to be a huge hunger need in this country for years to come. I think one of the things that COVID did was expose how precarious our food supply chain is and how broken most of the systems are.
“We know there are going to be thousands of idle restaurants and out-of-work chefs in America,” he continues. “Maybe this is a case study, and we set up permanent relief kitchens. It’s a real possibility, but it takes a lot of money. Restaurant workers pivot really quickly. That’s what makes us a little different. You see a problem, you find a solution. As long as there are people to help, we’ll be there.”
Chris Shepherd and Kathryn Lott: Southern Smoke Foundation
When Chris Shepherd created the Southern Smoke Foundation in 2015, it was a personal response to the news of his friend and former sommelier Antonio Gianola’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Shepherd called a few chef friends, hosted a fundraiser, and was able to give money to the MS Society. Within a few years, Southern Smoke had become the largest third-party fundraiser to the MS Society in five states.
Hurricane Harvey in 2017 changed the organization’s focus, moving it towards aid for people in the food and beverage industry with the launch of the Emergency Relief Fund. It took some work to find restaurant and bar workers they could help; Shepherd and his team had to post fliers around Houston to encourage people to apply for relief funds.
“No one wanted to ask for help,” Shepherd recalls. “It’s taboo. We’re used to being the people who help everybody else; we don’t think about whether we need help ourselves.”
They received 200 applications for financial support after Harvey, a big step at the time that pushed the organization to establish an application process and review protocol.
That middle step towards growth would prove to be prescient. Once the pandemic hit the U.S. and restaurants were shut down, the number of applications for aid jumped from five or six a week to 28,000 over a couple of months. The foundation’s executive director, Kathryn Lott, went from overseeing one full-time and one part-time employee to 40 full-time employees, many of whom had just lost their jobs in the restaurant and bar industries. They process applications and screen requests for aid, checking that the applicants can prove prior employment in the foodservice industry. Case workers review requests and present them to a committee that votes on whether to give money, and how much. It sounds like a long process and it means people who are paid under the table cannot qualify, but since COVID hit, Southern Smoke has been able to give almost $3 million to 1,600 families.
“We did not expect to be in this position,” says Shepherd, noting that there is a wait list of applicants. “But there is no end in sight. Three million is great; it’s way more than I ever thought we’d do. But we need $56 million to fund everyone asking us.”
Southern Smoke has expanded its programs when possible, offering free mental healthcare to anyone in Texas working in food and beverage and their children, and, with a generous private donation, launching $4 million in relief for restaurant and bar workers in Chicago. Still, Shepherd says he doesn’t see an end to the need anytime soon.
“Private donations are great, but we are seeing donor fatigue as this drags on,” he says. “What would really help is a government-assisted program that could give money in one swoop.”
Shepherd’s daily work has pivoted from running his kitchens to talking with Senators as he advocates to help save restaurants and the people who work in them.
“Chefs are always the first ones in, the last ones out,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’re going to fight every day. That’s for sure.”
Willa Pelini, Paola Velez, Rob Rubba: Bakers Against Racism
Until June, the phrase “bake sale” brought to mind something cute: card tables with pineapple Bundt cakes sold to raise money for a Cub Scout troop. But now, we’ve learned that bake sales can do more than help pay for school band uniforms. They can be tools to fight systemic racism.
It started with a phone call in early June, as protests over the killing of George Floyd took place around the country. Willa Pelini knew Paola Velez from their work as restaurant pastry chefs in Washington, D.C., and asked her if she wanted to collaborate on a bake sale to raise money towards social justice.
Velez agreed, and they contacted Rob Rubba, the chef/owner of D.C.’s Oyster Oyster, to work with them on the campaign and create graphics to promote it. They set up a Google document, an email address, and an Instagram account and hoped to get a few dozen people involved.
“We were like, if we could get 80 people to sign up and we could each raise $1,000, that would be insane,” Pelini recalls. “I was prepared to call everyone I knew to ask them to participate. We had no idea how big it was going to be.”
What they also didn’t immediately realize is that creating tangible work for a good cause was manna for people all over the world who felt paralyzed after three months of shelter-in-place orders and frustrated by continued violence against Black people. The campaign offered ordinary people a small action they could take to help.
The team launched the campaign on June 4. By the time the bake sale took place on June 20, more than 2,500 pastry chefs and home bakers around the world had joined the cause, raising $1.9 million dollars for nonprofits devoted to social justice.
Part of the campaign’s success was its simplicity: bakers just had to decide what they were going to sell, promote it, take orders, and designate a beneficiary. Across the country, people who had spent months perfecting their sourdough and banana bread during quarantine joined in.
“I think a lot of people were feeling the same things we were feeling and really wanted something they could do,” Pelini notes. “There is something so satisfying about baking because the fruits of your labor are right in front of you. You feel like you are in control. It’s universal, a cross-cultural shared practice of how you show people that you love them. If you can’t get out and protest but just learned to make banana bread, this was something you could do to make a difference.”
Velez, who is Afro-Dominican, notes that bake sales have historic roots in protest, adding that in any industry, women of color—especially Black women—aren’t treated fairly. That knowledge has inspired her as a baker and as an activist.
“When I was learning to cook, it started with European food,” she says. “I learned everything I could, and then just decided to keep expanding my knowledge. I cooked all the way through the trans-Atlantic slave trade and found that every single country has been influenced by Black culture and food. It’s beautiful to find that homecoming in food and make it a weapon for good with Bakers Against Racism.”
Pelini, Velez, and Rubba took time to start new jobs (they were all furloughed in May and June) before launching another event. Bake the Vote, a fundraiser to preserve voting rights, launches September 21.
“The work isn’t done,” Velez notes. “It’s still happening. I want to influence BIPOC bakers and make their voices heard. Those who feel oppressed have a brighter future, even if we don’t know what that looks like.”
“I hope what we did gave people the framework to get more involved in local government and organizations fighting systemic racism,” Pelini says. “That’s exciting for me. It’s the collective that makes it so powerful and impactful. Something that seems small can make a big impact.”
Greg Mohr and Scott Weiner: The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group
St. Patrick’s Day is a huge day for bar owners in Chicago, the reward for surviving a cold, slow winter. But this year, it was the day Greg Mohr and Scott Weiner of The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group had to furlough 90 percent of their employees and close 17 of their 20 restaurants and bars.
Rather than focus on the loss of revenue, they went into action. Spurred by a generous donation from a tech CEO, they launched The Fifty/50 Group Charities Food Donation Drive on March 25, opening a community kitchen at their sports bar, The Fifty/50. A week later, they partnered with The LEE Initiative to offer meals and essentials for restaurant workers at their café, West Town Bakery & Diner. They eventually partnered with 20 other charities and organizations, including World Central Kitchen and Frontline Foods, opening up locations of their pizza restaurants, Roots Handmade Pizza, to feed frontline hospital workers and underserved communities. By the time they wrapped up their food drives in mid-June, The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group had provided more than 80,000 meals to Chicagoans in need.
For Weiner and Mohr, the quick pivot to donating meals was how their neighborhood restaurants could support the community. They made it financially doable by treating it as a business decision.
“We knew our business was going to be hit,” Weiner says. “But we’ve always been pretty conservative about money; we keep it in the bank, not our pockets. And we knew that the best thing we could do long-term was to have a place for employees to come back to.”
Weiner and Mohr reached out to investors and other capital partners to ask for help funding the campaign, raising money for it as they would for a restaurant. That money, coupled with several large donations, meant they were able to offer 500 to 600 meals a day for anyone who needed a meal.
“It was like starting a new business,” Mohr remarks. “We got extremely efficient. We created a department around managing everything, an accountability chart, checks and balances, sanitation measures, safety and food costs. This way, we were able to afford to keep everyone on health insurance. And we could see how long we could keep it going even after the donations stopped.”
They got creative with fundraising, launching an online raffle to supplement the initial round of donations.
“We brought in another $14,000 by selling raffle tickets,” Weiner says. “We hit up all our contacts and sold virtual happy hours with (Cubs owner) Tom Ricketts, bottles of Pappy—whatever people would buy.”
In summer, they partnered with the Chicago social justice organization My Block, My Hood, My City on a neighborhood cleanup and food drive. They say this work is part of their role as small business owners in Chicago.
“It was natural for us to donate to them and volunteer with them,” says Mohr. “It helped a lot of our people; they needed to feel they were helping others. We want to work with good people who are also giving back to the community.”
“A lot of this stems back to us being neighborhood restaurants,” Weiner notes. “We’ve gone into restaurants that don’t depend on corporate or travel. We’ve always been involved in the neighborhoods. This is what a neighborhood restaurant should be.”
“The company feels better as a result. It’s made our culture feel more cohesive,” Mohr adds. “Seeing all those people coming back for a meal, day after day, changed us. The charitable arm will always be there. If there is good to be had from this time, this is it.”
Chandra Ram is the editor of Plate. Follow her on Instagram @chandrasplate.