A COVID-19 Restaurant Worker Fund Struggles to Attract Grant Applicants

The COVID-19 pandemic has left millions of cooks, servers, bartenders, hosts, counter staff, and many more (both salaried and hourly) out of work, without insurance, and with a growing fear of not being able to make ends meet.

While groups like the Independent Restaurant Coalition continue to tirelessly work with Congress to get the $120 billion RESTAURANTS Act revitalization bill passed, local efforts exist to help people on a more immediate basis. The only problem? Not enough hospitality workers have applied for grant money.

“I don’t think we anticipated the challenge would be this great,” says Kathryn Lott, executive director of the Southern Smoke Foundation. “It’s really hard to get this particular industry to ask for help. People pride themselves on being survivors and doing for themselves.”

The Southern Smoke Foundation, which was started in 2015 by Houston-based James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd, announced in early August the Chicago Restaurant Workers Relief Fund. Powered by anonymous donors, the group created a $4 million fund to support industry workers in Cook County, home to more than 7,300 restaurants. The donors said they would match up to $1 million in additional donations, bringing the total available funds to $6 million.

Lott explains Southern Smoke expected a much higher response when the fund was announced in August, but to date the fund has only fielded 1,028 applications. To be eligible, people must have worked in a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop for a minimum of 30 hours a week (not necessarily at just one place; it could be a mix of jobs) for at least six months before the pandemic began. Applicants need to show a W2 or pay stub to verify employment. Beyond that, few questions are asked — for instance, immigrants can be waiting on a green card. Funds are doled out based on need, so there’s no set amount someone can receive. The organization is serious about the vetting process, but once approved, funds can transfer quickly.

“It’s an organization run based on the level of urgency at hand,” Lott says. “We have levels of urgency we identify and have screeners operating almost in real time as applications come through. We try to get someone up and out of crisis.”

That could mean using the funds to pay rent or a car payment, a utility bill to keep the heat on, or even high medical expenses. But to date, the fund has awarded $386,425 to 140 applicants, which means more than $3.6 million still sits unclaimed — with up to another possible $2 million if the funding match hits its mark. So far, only $35,000 of that $1 million match has been raised, but local support is working to raise more. Southern Smoke also directs 90 cents from every dollar raised right into giving, putting significantly more money into people’s hands than into administrative fees.

A man with glasses leaning outside at a street fest.

Southern Smoke was started by Houston chef Chris Shepherd.
Southern Smoke/Michelle Watson of CatchLight Group

Catching on in Chicago

As more people remained out of work, local folks connected to the industry held fundraisers to support the fund to raise more money, but to also get the word out that help was available for people. Sarah Grueneberg, chef/owner of Monteverde in the West Loop, has known Shepherd since he hired her in 2003 for her first cooking job at Brennan’s of Houston. She has participated in Shepherd’s annual fundraiser for Southern Smoke in Texas and knew she wanted to help when the Chicago fund got announced. Each Sunday, Monteverde offers a $40 whole chicken Parmesan (her winning dish from Beat Bobby Flay) and donates $10 to the fund for each dish sold. The restaurant also has a direct donation section on its online to-go ordering platform.

“People are saying this [fund] is changing their lives when they didn’t have any hope,” Grueneberg says. “If you need help, take advantage of it. Don’t feel bad you’re applying for support. Part of the awareness is to fight any guilt or stigma.”

Around the time the fund was announced, Brian Jupiter, chef and owner of Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern, had done some work with Diageo and Bulleit Bourbon. He learned about the Chicago fund from reps at Bulleit; the liquor brands donated $1,500 to the fund in Jupiter’s name.

“We have so many restaurants in Chicago, and that’s part of the downside of waiting for support from the government,” Jupiter says. “It’s a fast-paced, cash-first profession for a lot of our servers and bartenders. It makes it difficult to go from that to nothing at all. I’m leery of donating to the ‘big boys’ because the money just gets lost. This seemed like it would get into the right hands.”

The two wine importers — The Sorting Table and Louis Dressner Selections — partnered with Chicago restaurants Table, Donkey and Stick and Pizza Friendly Pizza to hold a fundraiser December 10 where people paid $75 for a special pizza, a bottle of sangiovese wine, and a Zoom pizza party. Ten percent of the money raised — about $300 — went to the fund.

ABC 7 Chicago’s Steve Dolinsky hosted a similar fundraising event at Pizza Lobo. Dolinsky — who also runs Pizza City USA Tours with his wife Amy Dordek — created 16 focaccia crusts for four different pizza flavors named for streets or neighborhoods in Chicago (like Pilsen and Harlem Avenue) and sold pieces for $7. He also raised $2,200 by selling a Breville and an Ooni pizza oven.

“I wanted to do something to help and didn’t know what I could do short of supporting restaurants by ordering,” Dolinsky says. “I wanted to give a check that was going to directly help people.”

Food Network & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival presented by Capital One - Dinner with Sarah Grueneberg, Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli part of the Bank of America Dinner Series

Monteverde’s Sarah Grueneberg is raising money for Southern Smoke, a group from her native Houston.
Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images for NYCWFF

Helping Chicago hospitality workers

While many more people can still benefit from the fund, a good number of folks have already received money to cover a variety of financial needs. When 23-year-old Ashley Collins, who is pregnant and has custody of her 16-year-old brother, got laid off temporarily from her job, she received a one-time disaster relief payment, but that only went so far. She applied for a grant to help pay rent to a family friend who let them stay in their basement as well as her credit card and phone bills. The fund awarded her $800.

Peter Mohawk, 62, works as a server for Levy Restaurants’ properties at the United Center, Wrigley Field, and Ravinia, and has basically had no income since the middle of March. He collects unemployment, but has high medical bills and sought assistance to help pay for his health insurance premium. The fund awarded him $1,320. Amie Autentrieth received an undisclosed amount to help with mortgage payments and groceries. She’s a 39-year-old single mother who got laid off from her restaurant job twice due to the suspension of indoor dining by the government.

While the fund awards money only to those who have worked in restaurants, bars, or coffee shops in Chicago, the national Southern Smoke Foundation fund is open to anyone who works in the food and beverage supply chain: farmers, distillery and winery workers, food and alcohol delivery drivers, and more. During the pandemic, Southern Smoke has granted $4.3 million to 2,200 people nationwide. In November, restaurateur David Chang brought the organization $1 million after winning Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The organization continues to accept applications. Chicago restaurant workers can apply grants at the link.

1901 West Madison Street, , IL 60612

1020 West Madison Street, Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 888-3041

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