America's Best Restaurants Are Turning Into Relief Centers for Hospitality Workers
Chef Edward Lee is leading the charge to keep food on the tables of the millions who work in hospitality
With much uncertainty around how the COVID-19 pandemic will ultimately affect the restaurant and bar industries, many people and organizations have started to mobilize around workers who have been laid off. No one knows how long — or how deeply — closures in the hospitality industry will last, but relief for many, even in small forms, is already underway.
Enter Louisville-based, James Beard Award-winning chef Edward Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood as well as Succotash in Washington, D.C., who started the LEE Initiative in 2018 with co-worker Lindsey Ofcacek to ensure diversity and equality within the industry.
With the onset of the pandemic, thousands of local restaurant and bar staff suddenly found themselves out of work, so Lee and Ofcacek, along with support from LEE sponsor Maker’s Mark, launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program to do what they can to help. Starting on March 17, Lee turned 610 Magnolia into a relief center where unemployed hospitality workers could show a recent pay stub to receive a complimentary to-go meal and other essential items like toilet paper, diapers, Tylenol, non-perishable canned goods and cereal. That first night, they served more than 400 people and received donations from around the country. The Restaurant Workers Relief Program continues to help people each night.
“We need to make sure these workers are not forgotten, they are in the millions,” Lee says. “They feed us throughout the year, they clean our dishes, they answer our phones, they are the backbone of our industry and we cannot turn our backs on them today. They are society and if we want to say we live in a civil society, we must do all we can to help them.”
The move inspired chefs across the country to partner with the LEE Initiative and launch relief centers in their respective cities. Nancy Silverton at Chi Spacca in Los Angeles; Jose Salazar at Mita’s in Cincinnati; Edouardo Jordan at Salare in Seattle; Paul Kahan at his Wicker Park Big Star location in Chicago; Alon Shaya at Safta in Denver; Greg Braxtrom at Olmsted and Nate Adler at Gertie’s, both in Brooklyn; Donald Link at Cochon in New Orleans; Ouita Michel and Samantha Fore at Great Bagel Bakery in Lexington; and Linton Hopkins at Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta all joined on, as did Lee’s Succotash team in D.C.
Currently, the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, with funds from Maker’s Mark and other donations, has the budget to continue to feed out-of-work staffers for two weeks in five cities, serving people each night until supplies run out, according to Lee.
“It’s important for me to be here for this community, especially now, because they have been there for me,” Chef Jordan says. “This hits hard because we work incredibly hard to help people in times of need. Right now, we feel lost and abandoned by our government. The only way through is banding together and fighting for and with each other in solidarity. I feel it’s my obligation to do my part for my staff, my family and my community.”
Since Maker’s Mark has already worked with the LEE Initiative for a few years, the company knew it wanted to assist however they could, through financial support and manpower to assemble and distribute the meal kits.
“When this situation hit, we immediately reached out to chef Edward Lee and his team to see how we could help,” says Rob Samuels, managing director of Maker’s Mark Distillery. “We’re very involved in the food service industry and we want to help our friends and our community in any way we can.”
Anyone who would like to offer support can donate directly at the LEE Initiative website.