Hailing from the Midwest, Shepherd may seem like an unlikely champion of the Texas culinary scene. But in addition to creating some of Houston’s favorite restaurants, Shepherd has also exposed some of the glaring holes in the hospitality industry’s safety net. Despite spending almost a decade in the fine dining scene, he is a force of good for the everyman, not to mention the everyman’s palate.
Eleven years ago, Shepherd helped redefine the Houston food scene when he opened Underbelly. The restaurant, which eventually grew into a whole hospitality group, focused on fresh, local ingredients and upscale versions of comfort food favorites. When Shepherd suddenly left Underbelly Hospitality last summer, it shocked the city’s foodies and left them wondering what the ambitious chef would do next. The answer: to provide much-needed resources for employees in the food and beverage sphere.
Shepherd founded the Southern Smoke Foundation in 2o16 to tackle some of the restaurant industry’s biggest problems. Cooks, suppliers, servers, bartenders, delivery people, and other food workers often grapple with low wages and stressful workplaces. Southern Smoke offers solutions for both of these problems, all across the United States.
The organization collects donations and gives the money directly to restaurant workers who need emergency funds, whether it’s to pay for medical treatment or deal with a natural disaster. Southern Smoke keeps the red tape to a minimum. Donors provide money in the form of cash, stocks, or mutual funds; and restaurant workers can apply for those funds on Southern Smoke’s website. Any full-time food and beverage worker is eligible, and the nonprofit aims to respond to all applications within 24 hours. Unlike public benefits and insurance, which often put arduous requirements on applicants, Southern Smoke asks simple, intuitive questions and requires only a few pay stubs to verify employment. A real person works with a team of industry professionals to review the case. Then, the nonprofit apportions out money based on how much it has available. Charity Navigator has awarded Southern Smoke a coveted four-star rating, praising the organization’s compassionate mission statement and transparent finances.
Shepherd and Southern Smoke also launched the Behind You initiative. This program offers free mental health counseling across five states: California, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, and, of course, Texas. Working with local universities, Behind You connects restaurant workers with experienced clinicians and ensures complete confidentiality along the way. In an industry where long hours, demanding customers, and intense physical labor are the norm, Behind You provides critical relief for workers.
Altogether the organization has already donated $11 million to food and beverage workers in need (at press time). Shepherd was particularly proud to highlight that $250,000 of that money went to workers in Hawaii, who had lost wages due to the devastating wildfires.
Even though Southern Smoke is less than a year old, the Houston food festival that bears its name has been going since 2015. Each year, dozens of chefs and local sponsors gather to wine and dine the populace, while raising money for charity. This past October, the festival raised almost $2 million, which will go toward Southern Smoke’s emergency relief and mental health initiatives.
While the restaurant industry can be a hectic, intimidating, and even dangerous place to work, Shepherd represents what we love about it: creativity, camaraderie, and the simple pleasure of a good meal. “Find a cause you believe in, and believe in yourself enough to support that cause in any way you can” he advises Worth readers. “It just takes one person to get a wave started.”