Sommelier Matthew Pridgen is the Beverage Director at the Underbelly Hospitality restaurant group and the Wine Director at its flagship concept One/Fifth. He’s also the “Special Events, Wine, and Silent Auction Director” at Southern Smoke, a non-profit association that provides assistance to Houston-area restaurant workers in times of need.
Last week, he took time out from an extremely busy schedule to speak with the Houston Press about how he and his team have mobilized to help the Houston restaurant community. As he notes, Southern Smoke continues to accept applications for financial aid and thanks to the organization’s national profile, people from across the United States are donating. This interview is part of an ongoing series about Houston wine professionals and how they are coping with the current health crisis.
HP: How are things going at your flagship restaurant One/Fifth?
MP: We were due to shut down and reopen One/Fifth when this all happened. So that is on hold indefinitely until this thing clears up and we can get back to life as normal. Early on we were operating out of One/Fifth and Georgia James. We were doing to-go from all the concepts. We’ve since consolidated our efforts. Georgia James is [now] where we’re doing meals to go, ready-to-eat take-and-bake items as well as butcher shop items, desserts, and things like that.
HP: What are doing to keep your staff safe during the crisis?
We’ve split our teams. We have two different teams now. Both teams are working four days on, four days off to try and separate people. If something happens to one team, we have another team to go to. Just trying to keep people as separate as possible.
We are obviously asking everyone to isolate. It’s imperative that we keep everyone healthy. So we are asking them to stay at home and not have any interaction with anyone outside of their regular lives [aside from] spouses and significant others.
Obviously, there’s a lot of handwashing and everyone is wearing masks. You just can’t be too careful these days. We have sanitizer everywhere and we’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of masks. So we’re trying to be as careful as we can, not only with the food we’re preparing but with each other, to stay healthy. So far, knock on wood, everybody seems to be doing fine.
HP: What’s the status of Southern Smoke and how have you mobilized to help the community?
MP: We’ve had a tremendous outpouring of support from the community and nationwide of people donating to Southern Smoke. It’s been great because it’s needed.
Before the outbreak, we had two full-time employees at Southern Smoke. We’re now up to 30 full-time employees just because of the influx of applications from people in need that we have received. To date, since this has happened, I think we’ve received somewhere around 17,000 applications for assistance.
All of our 30 full-time employees, with the exception of maybe two, are furloughed restaurant workers. So we’ve been able to hire them on and give them a full-time position, which in turn gives back to the restaurant community.
So far we’ve donated over $670,000 to 354 people to date since the COVID crisis has started. Obviously there’s still a lot more. They’re processing them as fast as they to try to get money to people. Once people are approved, it’s a really quick turn-around. The check is in the mail immediately. It’s been a big help to a lot of people.
We’re able to help outside of Houston. It’s nationwide. It’s not relegated to strictly Houston.
HP: Is your website still accepting applications for emergency aid?
HP: When you first started Southern Smoke, did you ever think that you’d be helping out during a global pandemic?
MP: It was something that really didn’t exist. We put on the event every year and we’ve raised a ton of money over the years. Since 2015, we’ve donated over $2.3 million. It’s one thing to put on the event. But when something like this happens, it’s unprecedented. It’s mind-boggling. But to see that yes, this money is actually going to help people pay the rent and buy their groceries and things like that… I’m really proud to be a part of it.
HP: How are things going at home?
MP: I’m just trying to stay as sane as possible. I’ve got two kids at home, trying to home school and explain to the kids what’s going on. It’s a whole new world.