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Fighting Famine with Feast

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Houston Restaurant Weeks has been a boon to local eateries—and the nation’s largest food bank.

By Marene Gustin

August used to be a slow time for fine-dining restaurants in Houston, as many of their regular customers fled the heat for cooler climes. Not anymore. “We always used to take vacation time in August,” says one waiter at a white-tablecloth eatery. “But not now—it’s our second-busiest month of the year, behind December.”

And that’s all thanks to Cleverley Stone, the founder of Houston Restaurant Weeks (HRW), the largest fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank. It’s a simple premise: from August 1 until Labor Day, participating restaurants offer a set HRW menu—for lunch, dinner, or brunch—and donate a portion of the price. Since it began 15 years ago, HRW has raised more than $9.6 million for what is now the largest food bank of its kind in the country.

“The Houston Food Bank places high value on providing nutritious food for low-income families and individuals in southeast Texas,” says president Brian Greene. “We lead the nation’s food banks in distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables, and Houston Restaurant Weeks plays a significant role in that effort. Funds from the event help us acquire produce as well as meat. We’re grateful to Cleverley for her tremendous commitment and leadership in hunger relief.”

Stone is a longtime fixture of the foodie scene in Houston, having started with the Houston Post. “I ran the bridal section,” Stone recalls. “I got to know a lot of chefs and restaurants, and did a Sunday column about reception food.”

When the Post closed in 1995, she went on to freelance, writing mostly about food. In 1997, she started a newsletter about food and restaurants. “It was a weekly fax,” she says. “I would stand by my fax machine on Thursday nights sending out hundreds of faxes. It was only later that a friend said I should email them, and I had to ask what email was. Luckily, they set me up and it became much easier.”

Twenty years later, the newsletter is still going strong, and Jones has branched out to other media. In 2003, another friend suggested that she use information from her newsletter for a radio show. But she wasn’t sure about that. “How do you talk about food on the radio?” she wondered. It was Mark Stevens, of the legendary Stevens & Pruett radio show, who pushed her to do it. They teamed up to do the Stevens and Cleverley radio program on K-ARTS. “We would do it live at Tony Vallone’s restaurants,” Stone says. Today, she produces and hosts The Cleverley Show every Saturday morning on Sports Radio 650. Since 2008, she has also hosted cooking segments several times a week on Fox 26’s morning show.

And somehow, she also managed to launch HRW—a strictly volunteer effort—back in 2003. “The concept isn’t new—other cities were hosting restaurant weeks, and I thought I could do that and use it to benefit the Houston Food Bank,” Stone says. New York City has a restaurant week that started 25 years ago to promote the dining industry, but Houston had never tried it.

The first year, 16 restaurants participated, and it lasted one week. Last year, the five-week event had 275 participating eateries that raised more than $2 million and paid for 6,045,473 meals from the Houston Food Bank. Diners love it because they can try places due to the meal discounts, keeping restaurants busy and bringing in extra tax revenue for the city. It’s now the largest restaurant-week event in the country.

“I have no free time,” Stone admits, “It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours. I have to keep at it all the time.

“But I do it with the hope of not having any more hungry children and seniors,” she says. “Houston is not a poor city; no one should be hungry.”

Houston Restaurant Weeks runs August 1 through September 4. For a list of participating restaurants and menus, visit houstonrestaurantweeks.com.

This article appears in the August 2017 issue of OutSmart Magazine. 

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.
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