Chicago coronavirus: Houston-based foundation hopes to help local restaurant workers amid COVID-19 pandemic

Southern Smoke Foundation established after Hurricane Harvey
CHICAGO (WLS) -- The COVID-19 pandemic has put tens of thousands of jobs in the food and beverage sector at risk in Cook County.

But a Houston-based foundation is about to inject some much-needed hope, and a lot of money, into efforts to help support that community with not only financial grants, but also employment.

The Southern Smoke Foundation was set up by Houston Chef Chris Shepherd after Hurricane Harvey left thousands of restaurant workers unemployed. They've had a national relief fund since then, but this new donation establishes a permanent fund now dedicated to helping Chicago restaurant workers.

Up until recently, Southern Smoke's national emergency relief fund had only handed out about two dozen grants to Chicagoans, totaling around $46,000. Many more out-of-work baristas, servers, cooks, dishwashers and other restaurant employees will likely benefit now, thanks to a whopping $4 million jumpstart on a new Chicago-only foundation.

The last few months have been devastating for local restaurant workers. But kindness sometimes comes from unexpected places. After Hurricane Harvey wiped out thousands of jobs in Houston, Kathryn Lott heard from her friend and colleague.

"Chris Shepherd, our founder, James Beard Award-winning chef, called me and said, 'hey, we need to get money into the hands of people in the food and beverage industry immediately," she said.

And so the Southern Smoke Foundation was launched with a national mission. But just last week, they announced a $4 million donation to establish a fund specifically for Chicago-area workers, providing either grants or one of 40 new jobs with the foundation.

Applicants must have worked in a restaurant, bar or coffee shop for a minimum of six months prior to the COVID-19 crisis for a minimum of 30 hours per week. There is no cap on funding per applican; each application is processed anonymously and awarded based on need. Life and death crises take priority. Cases are not necessarily funded in the order in which they are received.

"We'll be staffing up with furloughed and unemployed food and beverage industry people and training them to be caseworkers and screeners; from start to finish, we are completely mission-based. We pay everyone $15 an hour across the board, and that's how we've chosen to staff up so that either we're giving you a grant or we're giving you an employment opportunity," Lott said.

Shawn Clendening was out of work when he moved back to Chicago in March, and received a grant from the foundation.

"Enough to get me two months' rent, which was extremely helpful in this time of trying to find a job on top of somewhere to live," he said.

That temporary aid allowed him to get his next project up-and-running from a commissary kitchen near Humboldt Park.

"Just to be able to help pay your bills, to help get medical coverage, to do whatever you need to," Shepherd said.

He said his city and Chicago are a lot alike, in terms of their restaurant communities.

"It's just like Houston in a way, it's so hard and there's so many people that kind of get pushed to the back that don't really get that assistance that they need, and so we're really hoping this is the place where they can go. I got a lot of friends there, and I know they got a lot of staff and the staff is where that needs to go. They need help right now," Shepherd said.

There are two more important details regarding the donors: They're doing a dollar-for-dollar match up to another $1 million, which means the total amount of aid could be as large as $6 million, and they're also covering all of the administrative expenses, meaning every dollar donated goes directly to a restaurant worker in need.

Chicago Restaurant Workers Relief Fund
southernsmoke.org/chicago-relief-fund
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