Chefs Chris Shepherd, Chris Williams Discuss Supporting Houston Communities during COVID-19
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, February 5, 2021 — Asia Society Texas Center welcomed Houston chefs Chris Shepherd (Georgia James, One Fifth) and Chris Williams (Lucille’s) to speak about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected local communities, including hospitality workers and seniors. In conversation with FOX 26 reporter and anchor Natalie Hee, the two chefs discussed their firsthand experience of the pandemic shutdowns’ impact on their restaurants and staff, and how they have stepped up to respond to the needs of their neighbors through their respective nonprofits.
How their restaurants have been affected
Hee began by noting that nearly one year after the first pandemic shutdown, 14–16 percent of restaurants in Texas had closed permanently, and asked Shepherd and Williams about how they had personally been affected by the pandemic. Shepherd shared a personal highlight – he had just gotten married in December – but also acknowledged the struggles within the hospitality industry around staffing, profitability, and the need to adapt to new circumstances such as use of contactless menus, converting parking lots into outdoor dining spaces, and running on shoestring budgets.
Williams provided an alternative perspective, admitting the challenges of the past year but also viewing them as opportunities. He said Lucille’s had been at the forefront of a banner year in February 2020 before the pandemic shut things down. However, Williams shared that he managed to keep 99 percent of Lucille’s staff, which he said operates as a family, and found further opportunity in the new environment. For instance, he said the reduced restaurant capacity allowed for fine-tuning Lucille’s hospitality model and service, and Williams’ new nonprofit, Lucille’s 1913, provided a chance to engage more deeply with the local community.
Supporting neighbors in need
Hee invited both chefs to speak about their nonprofit work during the pandemic, which she noted have provided significant assistance to Houstonians in different ways. Williams explained the origin of Lucille’s 1913, which began with his partnership with the nonprofit World Central Kitchen in 2020 to serve free, nutritious meals to an elderly community in Sunnyside. He said his work grew from feeding approximately 127 residents to providing for other underserved communities in Houston’s Third and Fifth Wards. At its peak, Lucille’s 1913 was providing 1,800 meals a day, according to Williams.
He reported that the nonprofit has now begun to look toward long-term impact, with plans to secure 10 acres of land in Fort Bend County to grow produce and pay local residents $12/hour to cultivate land. Williams added that, in partnership with the organization Attack Poverty, additional residents would be hired to take the fresh ingredients and cook meals to feed their neighbors in what Williams described as an ecosystem with the goals of combating food insecurity and food waste and paving new opportunities through paid work.
With regard to the Southern Smoke Foundation, Shepherd explained it had originally been founded as a fundraising effort to bring awareness and cash to the MS Society, but following Hurricane Harvey, the foundation expanded to provide direct financial assistance to hospitality workers. He described an outpouring of support during the COVID-19 crisis, saying the foundation transformed almost overnight from a local organization to a national one, from taking in just over 200 applications to over 34,000. Since March, Shepherd said, the foundation has been able to grant 2,400 families over $4.5 million, and its work has garnered national attention and support, including an anonymous $4 million donation from Chicago and a $1 million award from chef David Chang through his win on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?
However, in addition to financial assistance, Shepherd emphasized the importance of mental health resources, which Hee noted became a key topic in the industry following the death of renowned chef Anthony Bourdain. Shepherd reported that in June the Southern Smoke Foundation partnered with Mental Health America to provide free mental health care to all hospitality workers and their families in the state of Texas.
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Investing in the local community
Both Shepherd and Williams emphasized the importance of investing locally, whether with partners in the restaurant industry or with a broader community within the city. Williams described how he invited Houston bar owners to stage pop-up events at Lucille’s outdoor patio, with the ability to keep 100 percent of profits minus the cost of products – a partnership that has now grown into a sponsored series with interest from bars in Galveston. Shepherd discussed his priority in buying from local farmers, a practice that can better shield restaurants from the supply chain disruptions that marked the earlier stages of the pandemic. Though their restaurants continue navigating challenges, both chefs acknowledged the great support of Houston residents for their local restaurants through curbside and delivery orders, generous tips, and social media sharing.
Williams said his biggest lesson during the past year has been to invest in the community. “If you invest in the community, the community can’t help but to reciprocate and invest back in you,” he said.
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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About Asia Society Texas Center
With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.