Chris Shepherd & Co. are in it for the long haul.
Chef Chris Shepherd believes the hospitality industry is—right now, at its core—inhospitable.
Despite helming Underbelly Hospitality Group, Shepherd may be best known among hospitality professionals for spearheading the Southern Smoke Foundation, a group of hospitality vets serving as the industry's safety net, raising money and connecting Food and Beverage professionals (and people who hope to someday be working in hospitality) with essential resources and opportunities.
The first iteration came to be in 2014, not necessarily to provide relief, but to provide more opportunities. Shepherd and some friends started hosting dinners to raise money to pay for kids to attend culinary school.
“We’d have this dinner and wine pairing and by the end of the night, we’d have raised enough money to help a kid who couldn’t afford it become a chef,” Shepherd remembers.
But it wasn’t long before the root cause of Southern Smoke began to shift. “A friend came to me and asked me if we could do a dinner to raise funds for the MS Society,” Shepherd recalls. He remembers being confused and asking what the connection was—this was supposed to be about helping the less fortunate have more opportunities, right? Then, Shepherd says, “My friend tells me—‘I was just diagnosed.’”
Shepherd thought this needed more than a dinner. Instead, he called up Chefs Aaron Franklin, Sean Brock, and Rodney Scott and asked if they’d want to throw a party. They all agreed, and ended up throwing a barbecue festival with the help of the city. That year, they raised over $180,000.
The next year, they did it again. And they had it all planned out to throw the same party again the year after.
But in 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast, devastating Southeast Texas. At its peak, it left one-third of Houston underwater, and forced 39,000 people out of their homes and into shelters.
But Shepherd still saw a hole that needed to be filled.
“There was the Red Cross, JJ Watt’s fund, the Mayor’s Fund,” Shepherd recalls, “but there was nothing in place to support those affected that were specifically in the hospitality industry.”
With friends calling him from all over asking how they could help get money into the hands of dishwashers and cooks and bussers and waiters that were impacted, Shepherd had an idea.
He built an award and application system for the foundation, and that year, got about 230 applications. Collecting donations all around the country, Southern Smoke was able to grant 139 families half a million dollars.
“At that point, I realized that this wasn’t a part-time thing,” Shepherd says. “It became a 24/7, 7-days a week deal. We wanted to be prepared for every crisis because crises are year-round, and we wanted to build a safety net for our industry that was so clearly lacking one.”
A crisis larger than anyone could imagine came only a few years later.
“It felt like it happened overnight, 2020 came around and it went from 230 applications to 35,000 applications,” Shepherd says.
Southern Smoke started employing furloughed hospitality workers and turned them into caseworkers to handle the overwhelming volume. It became a beacon of light for the hospitality industry throughout the pandemic, an industry that was so frequently cast aside by nearly all levels of government.
Importantly, Shepherd’s restaurants also serve as a better model for the industry. Underbelly Hospitality proudly provides better wages, along with free health insurance for all full-time employees. “I have the same insurance that one of our dishwashers does,” Shepherd says. “Why should I have better insurance than him?”
The organization has grown exponentially since its founding and has responded unequivocally to aid those who need it most in the industry. However, Shepherd remains focused on what’s next for it.
In 2020, Southern Smoke was able to provide free mental health care to anyone in the hospitality industry in the state of Texas and their children. And as of 2021, Southern Smoke has added free child care for up to a year to that package.
“But the goal is that in the next eight years, we’ll be able to do that for every hospitality worker in the country,” Shepherd says.
“The goal,” Shepherd insists, “is to be there for the long haul.”
This means that Southern Smoke doesn’t just give money to those in need (although they do that as well). Instead, Southern Smoke provides resources for mental health, parental leave, and a community to rally behind those in need, in addition to providing financial resources.
A good example: in 2018, Southern Smoke found a case for a young gentleman who owned a pizza and wings joint, who was in a motorcycle accident. He was on his fourth brain surgery, and the insurance company told his mom they’d maxed out. They were forcing her to decide whether or not to pull the plug.
However, Southern Smoke was able to provide her a check for $98,000, enough to cover his medical bills and rehabilitation, and he ended up pulling through.
But, it extends beyond the money—“Chris Bianco and I went to see him, and Chris walks up to him and says, “I can’t wait to make pizzas with you buddy.”
That’s because hospitality isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life.