Even as Houston heads toward the one-year anniversary of COVID’s arrival in the city, and restaurants across Houston continue to experience COVID-19’s economic fallout, Lucille’s chef, Chris Williams, has never been busier.
At this very moment, Williams is in the midst of a major expansion to his restaurant group in both Houston and Canada. This summer, the chef will open the much-anticipated ‘Afro-Asian’ restaurant Late August with acclaimed Top Chef contestant Dawn Burrell and complete his takeover of a beloved cafe in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Later this year, Williams also plans to open a coffee shop named after the Third Ward’s historic Eldorado Ballroom.
Amid this feverish pursuit of growth, Williams also sits at the helm of a culinary nonprofit, Lucille’s 1913, that’s been keeping people fed since it was founded a year ago. In the coming weeks, his organization will surpass a huge milestone: 200,000 meals served to Houstonians and neighbors in less than a year of operation. In the days after winter storms Uri and Viola brought the entire state of Texas to a week-long halt, the organization delivered 4,000 meals, 2,000 liters of bottled water and 1,000 personal protective equipment kits to residents of Fort Bend County. A few days later, Lucille’s 1913 served 1,500 meals to residents of Cuney Homes, a public housing complex in the Third Ward.
It’s this work that fuels Williams, a resident of the Third Ward himself, who feels strongly that community collaboration should be part of the fiber of his organization. That enthusiasm is immediately obvious — when he talks about his charitable work, the energy in his voice is palpable. “I just like to will things into existence,” he says. “Every time I talk about it I get excited.”
Williams’s boundless energy, mixed with a little bit of stubbornness, has allowed him to build one of the most effective — and ambitious — new direct feeding programs in the Houston area, despite having no experience in nonprofit fundraising prior to 2020.
Like many other innovations that have emerged over the past year, Lucille’s 1913 is a product of the swirling economic uncertainty that COVID-19 brought in March 2020. The organization, like Williams’s restaurant, takes its name from his grandmother, Lucille B. Smith, who was considered an innovator in her time. Smith, a Texas native who spent much of her life in Fort Worth, invented the first commercially sold premade biscuit mix, and is known as the first African-American businesswoman in Texas. The year 1913 was when Smith began her catering business in Fort Worth.
Chris and his brother Ben founded the restaurant in 2012 as a tribute to their grandmother’s cooking and legacy. Ben later went on to start Highway Vodka, the first Black-owned distillery in Houston.
According to Williams, the idea for Lucille’s 1913 came not long after Harris County announced that it would require restaurants to close their dining rooms in mid-March. Facing a shutdown without an end in sight, Williams says that he was determined to keep everyone on his staff on the payroll, which meant that he had to find some way for them to keep working.
“There’s no fucking way we’re furloughing anybody. We’re keeping everybody,” he recalls saying. “So we drank up all the Jameson [and said], ‘We better start cooking.’” His organization began looking at other meal service programs, many of which were focusing on lunch. “It’s cheap and easy to do, and that’s where their staff is,” Williams says. “But my team is full of animals, and we started targeting first responders on the graveyard shift.”
During the first 15 days of the Houston Stay Home, Work Safe ordinance, which closed nonessential businesses like restaurants, Williams and his team served more than 3,000 meals to third-shift workers like nurses and EMTs, who would typically be relegated to fast food or other quick-service eats in the middle of the night. One of those first meals was braised short ribs over mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables.
By April 2020, Williams’s work had caught the attention of chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, which offered to help the budding organization feed seniors in Houston’s marginalized and historically Black neighborhoods. In those areas, like Acres Homes and the Third Ward, access to fresh food is limited, and seniors face a higher risk of food insecurity.
Williams says that feeding residents he considers his elders buoyed him. It was around that time that Lucille’s 1913 was officially founded.
The partnership with World Central Kitchen eventually ran its course, but it was clear that, as the pandemic wore on, the need for meals wasn’t subsiding. Williams, who had been approaching the feeding initiative like a restaurant where each meal is prepared individually, knew he needed to scale up. So in July, he brought on culinary director Lawrence Walker, who’d been furloughed from the San Luis Resort in Galveston. Walker’s experience with logistics and catering-style service helped Lucille’s 1913 ramp up to a point where they could begin delivering 5,000 fresh-cooked meals each day.
Of particular importance to Williams was that the meals the organization provided were ones that the people they served actually wanted to eat — not ingredients, not leftovers, but chef-prepared soul food dishes like the ones his grandmother used to make. These included dishes like lemon butter tilapia with roasted zucchini, roasted chicken breast, baked mac and cheese, and Virginia-style green beans cooked with ham hock.
That’s one of the benefits of smaller nonprofits and mutual aid groups, which can fill the niches that larger organizations with a lot of bureaucracy, like the massive national food bank network Feeding America, cannot. And especially when demand is high and donations are low, larger organizations like the food bank can find it difficult to provide choice to their recipients.
“You have the food bank, you have Meals on Wheels, those are great programs when there’s actual consideration of the recipients of the products you’re handing out,” he says. “I don’t think that exists anymore. I think it’s all about volume.”
That nimbleness meant the Lucille’s 1913 crew could combine other forms of outreach with their feeding efforts. In September, they started taping voter registration cards to every meal served, a practice that continued until the October 5 registration deadline. When early voting began, they again partnered with World Central Kitchen to feed about 500 Harris County poll workers. A large donation in December allowed the organization to give away 1,000 H-E-B gift cards, worth $100 each, to the community.
Distributing personal protective equipment alongside meals had been a part of Lucille’s 1913’s mission from the start. But as 2020 came to a close, Williams partnered with his brother Ben’s company, Highway Vodka, to distribute bottled water, a service that became essential following the catastrophic Texas freeze in February.
When word started to get out that Lucille’s 1913 was operating an efficient, chef-driven food distribution program, the organization was contacted by Fort Bend County judge KP George’s office, which led to Lucille’s first meal distribution outside of Harris County, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this year. For that drop, the organization prepared 1,000 meals of pork chops with mashed potatoes, gravy, and collard greens for Richmond residents, and another 1,000 meals of bistec a la Mexicana, Spanish rice, and charro beans for Rosenburg. Yet another thousand meals were delivered on the same day to residents in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Not surprisingly, the demand was steep. “The meals in Fort Bend didn’t last 45 minutes,” Williams says.
Williams is now partnering with a Fort Bend organization called Attack Poverty to develop a project that will employ at least 60 people in Fort Bend County. That project will be vertically integrated, meaning all aspects of the program, from farm to table, will be run by Lucille’s 1913 and Attack Poverty. It will start with a 10-acre farm located in Kendleton, a tiny town southwest of Sugar Land that was once part of a plantation, and was established by freed slaves after the Civil War. The farm will allow Lucille’s 1913 to provide jobs to 10 percent of Kendleton’s population, and will provide the community — which is currently 15 miles from the nearest grocery store — with much-needed access to fresh produce grown right in the area.
From there, food grown on the farm will be sent to a kitchen in Richmond, which will employ another 15 people. Meals prepared at the kitchen will then be distributed to residents in Richmond, Rosenberg, and Kendleton — areas that face high rates of poverty as well as food and housing insecurity. Finally, the vegetable scraps from the kitchen will be composted and put back into the farm in Kendleton.
“We’re going to teach [the Kendleton employees] how to be entrepreneurial farmers, and they’ll have the great benefit of knowing that the work they’re doing benefits their community,” Williams says. “And then in Richmond, people will learn the culinary side. We’ll teach them how to cook, they’ll be preparing the meals, and, again, they’ll have the same benefit the people in Kendleton do.”
Over the past 11 months, a lot of people have told Williams that his ideas were too bold. But he says not knowing the rules of nonprofit organizing has allowed him to break some molds. “I didn’t know anything about fundraising until recently, and I still don’t know anything,” he says. “But listen, I don’t fuck around. That’s the beauty of ignorance. I don’t know shit about that world, so I don’t have to exist by the constraints that are there. To hell with your rules.”
Williams wants his organization to be more than an assembly line where workers are sometimes divorced from the final product. “There’s no better relationship that you can build than with somebody who’s already a beneficiary of the work that you’re doing,” he says. “They have tangible insight into what’s born out of the work you’re doing, and now they can be employed and contribute to that. Not only are you assembling the whole chair, you’re seeing exactly who’s gonna sit it and what their placement is at the table. You’re making chairs for your own neighbors, your own mother, your own brother, and that’s the best part. And you’re paid to do it.”
As he prepares to move forward with these extremely ambitious plans, Williams is clearly fueled by the idea of serving meals to his elders in Black communities throughout Houston. He also is working tirelessly to serve these communities in a way that respects their contributions to the city, and that seeks to empower them.
“The people that are in need don’t need to be treated like they’re in need,” Williams says. “They need to be treated like people.”