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Heroes of Harvey: Restaurants to the Rescue

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How the food industry stepped up when the storm hit.

By Marene Gustin

Afew days after the Tropical Storm Harvey floods, I was having lunch at Frank’s Americana Revival when two Houston police officers came in. I told my waiter I wanted to pick up their check, but he informed me that restaurant owner Mike Shine had already taken care of it—and that three other tables had also asked to pay for the officers’ meals.

Anyone familiar with Houston’s food industry knows the generosity and camaraderie that abounds. In the aftermath of Harvey, it escalated to herculean proportions. “The first week after the hurricane, we had maybe 100 requests for hot meals,” Shine says. “And of course we said yes. How many and where? A lot of the sheriff’s deputies lost their homes and were staying at the jail to sleep and take showers off duty, and we took food to them about three or four times.”

Frank’s Americana Revival also gladly agreed to extend the Houston Restaurant Weeks fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank through the end of September. “In these trying times for Houston and its residents and businesses, we are touched by the outpouring of support from our generous supporters and donors,” says Brian Greene, the food bank’s president and CEO.

The Houston Food Bank serves 18 Texas counties, 11 of which have been declared disaster areas. In the storm’s aftermath, the nonprofit distributed one million pounds of food per day—three to four times more than usual. In the first week following the storm, 8,700 volunteers showed up to help.

Scott French

Houston Restaurant Weeks, where restaurants serve special menus and donate a portion of the price to the Houston Food Bank, is the largest annual fundraiser for the nonprofit. “Of course we agreed to extend the event,” says Greg Martin, chef and co-owner (with his husband, Paul) of Bistro Menil. “We were lucky. Neither our home nor restaurant suffered any damage, but so many others did.” Martin says about half of his customers are asking for the special menu. “That’s what we can do right now to help, so we are.”

Houston public-relations guru Dutch Small was in Atlanta while his husband, Israel Glass, battled the flooding in their hometown, but that didn’t stop Small from helping out. Small took to social media to coordinate restaurants, chefs, and others who wanted to donate food and prepared meals for first responders and evacuees.

The Midtown Kitchen Collective became a hub for feeding those in need, cranking out 10,000 to 15,000 hot meals (in addition to 1,800 sandwiches) per hour.

Pico’s restaurant donated $1 to the Houston SPCA for every cocktail sold, and chef/owner Arnaldo Richards took to the streets in affected neighborhoods on the north side to distribute lunches. Bollo Woodfired Pizza dedicated $5,000—an entire day’s worth of sales on September 5—to five flood-affected families in the area.

Bryan Caswell’s Reef eatery in Midtown took on some water, but he opened his kitchen to volunteers and began cooking for the relief efforts. Through his Southern Salt Foundation, he and his wife, Jennifer, also delivered hot meals and other necessities to hard-hit coastal towns like Rockport and Seadrift. And they’re planning to hold benefits for rebuilding efforts at their two soon-to-be-opened downtown concepts, Oxbow 7 and Hoggbirds.

At the Dessert Gallery, founder/owner Sara Brook and her team spent mornings in the kitchen preparing hundreds of deli sandwiches, before delivering them to some of Houston’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. Dessert Gallery also gave nearly $3,000 worth of food to Second Servings, Houston’s only prepared-food rescue organization, and is donating all proceeds from the sale of #HoustonStrong, #TexasStong, and hoUSton cookies to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Harvey Relief Fund. “It was heartbreaking to see so many families schlepping a lifetime of memories and possessions to the curbs outside their once-beautiful homes. It was also inspiring to see their strength and can-do spirit,” Brook says. “We know it was devastating for them—and hard labor. For us, being able to provide fresh meals and our signature chocolate-dipped chunk cookies was a labor of love.”

And the list goes on. So many in the food industry—from chefs, restaurant owners, publicists, grocery stores, and media outlets—have donated time, money, and food to those in need.

The story of the bakers at El Bolillo Bakery went viral after they decided to bake bread for two days straight while they were trapped in their store during the flooding. They produced so much bread that they were able to feed thousands after the water receded.

And the folks at Mister French’s Gourmet Bakery—Scott French, Roy Alvarez Jr., and chef C.J. Dilan—opened their doors to help feed first responders. The Mister French’s kitchen produced more than 7,000 meals before that crew moved to Catering By George so they could increase their output. “We’re a bakery and a caterer,” French says. “So even before the storm, most of our orders were cancelled. And since we didn’t have any flooding here, it just made sense to open up the kitchen and get to work helping those in need.

“We did 1,000 meals the first day, 2,000 the second, and 4,000 the third day,” he adds. “It was a very rewarding experience.”

But even without damage from Harvey, the business is still hurting. “The catering business has been hit a lot harder than other food businesses,” he admits. “People aren’t throwing parties and galas—and they shouldn’t be right now. But the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce has been really helpful to small businesses like us, helping to direct some business our way.”

French says things are far from normal, but like so many others, he’s confident Houston will recover.

This article appears in the October 2017 edition 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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