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Southern Smoke Receives Huge Donations from Houston Texans and Tito's Vodka

Southern Smoke 2019 was a huge success.
Southern Smoke 2019 was a huge success. Photo by Robert Jacob Lerma
News that Southern Smoke Spring, the fundraising event for The Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund to help industry employees was canceled in early March hasn't, as it turned out, ended the all-important fundraising efforts of restaurateur and chef Chris Shepherd and his group.

Over the weekend, the Houston Texans Foundation donated $50,000 to Southern Smoke while Tito's Vodka has chosen it as one of four beneficiaries of an immediate $1 million dollar donation to support the hospitality industry.

The other three beneficiaries are CORE, the USBG Foundation and World Central Kitchen. All of the funds from the Houston Texans Foundation will be used for applicants in Houston and the surrounding areas. Houston Texans President Jamey Rootes said in a press release: "The effects of COVID-19 are being felt in all industries, but especially in the hospitality industry...Houston has become the culinary capital of the south because of these hard-working Texans and we felt compelled to provide them with assistance during this difficult time."

Shepherd had announced that Southern Smoke Spring was being canceled due to coronavirus fears, as reported here in the Houston Press. The estimated amount on track to be raised was $200,000.

A week later, with the coronavirus making its way across the country, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced an order on March 16 — the day before St. Patrick's Day, a holiday that nets many bars and nightclubs a lot of dough — prohibiting restaurants and bars from opening their dining rooms and venues for 15 days.

The damage was hard and quick. Restaurants and bars have always had slim margins as far as profits go and they depend on holidays and celebrations to pump up their operating capital.

In 2015, Shepherd founded The Southern Smoke Foundation was founded in 2015 by Shepherd, his former business partner, Kevin Floyd and Lindsey Brown to raise funds for the Houston chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

In 2017, the restaurant and hospitality industry was slammed by damage from Hurricane Harvey. The Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund was instituted to divert some of the money raised to help industry employees recover from the natural disaster. Since then, the emergency fund has been used to aid those in the hospitality community dealing with insurmountable medical bills, damage from fires and other dire situations.

A smoking scene from Southern Smoke 2019. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
A smoking scene from Southern Smoke 2019.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Now, the current situation is exceedingly dire for the restaurant and bar business as many of them are closed or are currently operating as delivery and take-out vendors, something novel to many of them. The Southern Smoke Foundation quickly began receiving numerous applications for help from food and beverage professionals. In order to handle the influx, the organization has added six additional application screeners to its original staff of three. The new screeners are industry professionals who have recently been laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During Hurricane Harvey, the charity received around 200 applications. This month, in just over a week, it has received 3,500. The foundation accepts applications and grants nationwide. While the need is exceedingly great, there has also been an amazing response. The organization has seen an uptick in online donations, but these two recent major donations will also help to cover some serious ground.

Chris Shepherd's Southern Smoke Foundation is a light in a dark world. - PHOTO BY CATCHLIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
Chris Shepherd's Southern Smoke Foundation is a light in a dark world.
Photo by Catchlight Photography
According to Shepherd, the Southern Smoke team is working around the clock screening applications in order to get funds to people as quickly as possible. Some of the most recent cases include a mother in California who lost her job as a server and was living with her daughter in her car. Southern Smoke is providing funds to get them into a permanent housing situation. Another case was a woman in Tennessee whose home was destroyed by the recent tornadoes. The foundation is helping with money for repairs.

The Restaurant Workers Community Fund has committed 50 percent of all money raised to Southern Smoke and will direct anyone requesting financial help directly to Southern Smoke's Emergency Relief Fund application.

Kathryn Lott, executive director at Southern Smoke says, "My team and I will do everything we can to take care of as many people as we can so our restaurants and bars are still standing after this crisis...The Southern Smoke team will continue to work and we will all get through this together. We're here to take care of our own".

Together is the only way we will make it.

If you would like to donate or apply for funds, go to
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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.