The COVID-19 crisis has exposed and exacerbated sharp socioeconomic inequalities in the restaurant industry. Nearly half a million food service jobs in the Chicago metro area are at risk of disappearing, according to a study by McKinsey & Co

Many charitable efforts have sprung up in Chicago and nationally to help restaurant workers in need with meals, shelter and funds. Southern Smoke Foundation, a Houston-based crisis relief organization founded by James Beard Award-winning Chef Chris Shepherd, is one of the organizations that has been working around the clock to grant relief to food and beverage industry workers nationally. 

Since mid-March, Southern Smoke has granted more than $3 million to more than 1,600 individuals and now they have a $4 million fund dedicated specifically to Chicago-based restaurant workers, thanks to generous anonymous donors.

Chef Brian Jupiter of Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern, a local spokesman for Southern Smoke, was introduced to the relief fund by Bulleit Bourbon. 

“I’ve really enjoyed being able to spread the word about Southern Smoke,” he says. “They have been doing great work for years, but kicked it into high gear at a time when the industry needed it the most. Since March, the Chicago hospitality industry has really come together to help and support one another in any way they can.”

All restaurant, bar and coffee shop workers in Cook County are eligible to apply and the donors have agreed to match up to another $1 million in donations, which could bring the total available to $6 million. The donors have also offered to cover all administrative expenses for the matched funds, enabling every dollar donated to go directly to a restaurant worker in need. Restaurant workers in need can apply online. Southern Smoke is accepting applications until the funds run out.

Bryant Thomas, 54, was a part-time line cook at Dos Urban Cantina in Logan Square before the pandemic, and when he had a runny nose and a light cough at work on March 13, he was told to take a few days off. Thankfully Thomas didn’t have COVID-19, but those few days stretched into indefinite unemployment after Illinois shut down restaurants and bars a couple days later.

“I just keep applying for jobs every day,” he says. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back to work. I’m finishing my state food manager service exam too.” 

Thomas says he never received unemployment due to identity theft, but the $2,250 grant from the Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund for Chicago Restaurant Workers has kept him afloat, allowing him to pay rent, buy groceries and pay his cell phone bill.

Richard Jones first learned about the Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund while watching ABC 7 Chicago news. Jones is 50 years old and had been the executive chef at Public House in River North for more than five years when the pandemic hit. He had to get knee surgery in March and his five-year-old daughter has sickle cell anemia. By summer, he had exhausted his savings and maxed out his credit cards when he received $8,520 from Southern Smoke.

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“This was a lift in my morale,” he says, choking back tears. “I’m not a man that takes handouts, but I’m a single dad and this was a lifesaver. I’ve worked hard for 30 years and never had to apply for public assistance of any nature.” 

Jones says the application process was detailed and thorough, and he supplied mortgage papers, along with medical and daycare bills after first writing a letter explaining why he needed the grant. 

“The young lady who was handling my case helped me out extensively,” Jones says. “We only contacted each other by email and a lot can get lost that way, but she was very very good at what she did and communicating with me on what I needed to provide. She helped me understand the process and she fought for me in this grant because they have to present the case to the board members. She fought tooth and nail and researched a lot to help me get this amount.”

If you know any Chicago restaurant workers in need, please encourage them to apply here. Thus far, more than $150,000 has been awarded to more than 50 applicants, but there is still a lot of money on the table.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.