The program is a division of Lee’s nonprofit organization, The Lee Initiative (which stands for Let’s Empower Employment): a program that has raised money for several industry causes in the past, including gender diversity and equality. Lee is partnering with chefs like Alon Shaya (Saba Pomegranate Hospitality), Nancy Silverton (La Brea Bakery, Pizzeria Mozza), and Paul Kahan (Blackbird, avec, the Publican) to raise money and provide food and supplies for restaurant workers in need.
The fundraiser helps raise money for out-of-work restaurant employees in Louisville, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Seattle, Cincinnati, and New York City, with more chef partners being added weekly.
Alon Shaya, chef and founder of the Denver-based restaurant group, Pomegranate Hospitality is taking part by transforming his restaurant, Safta, into a relief center for unemployed restaurant workers. Every day from 3 to 5 pm starting Mon. March 23, the Safta team will be cooking, packaging, and distributing hundreds of to-go meals featuring classic comfort food recipes like beef chili and meatloaf, along with basic supplies like toilet paper and toiletries, for industry employees in need.
“My priority is taking care of our team members and community,” Alon Shaya said. “It took just a couple of days to put together.”
Although Shaya is eager to help his community and fellow foodservice colleagues, his restaurant is hurting as well. His restaurants have had to lay off most of his employees except a skeleton crew, who are helping to run the restaurant in shifts to coordinate takeout and delivery orders, as well as coordinating family meals for employees and the meals for the Restaurant Workers Relief program.
Shaya let go of 60 employees at his restaurants, leaving only 14 employees — who are all taking a 20% pay cut — to pick up the slack during these unusually challenging times. The only reason he was able to hire back 14 employees is because of the funds provided by Maker’s Mark, which is underwriting the relief program.
“The goal is to keep the business as strong as it can be so it’s there when it’s time to reopen,” Shaya said. “We have started a team relief fund for our employees: through our takeout and to-go business, any tips will go back to our team. Our goal is to help everyone get through this.”
For many restaurants trying to help out their local community, the challenge is lack of funds. For example, right now, Safta has enough funds and resources to keep these relief efforts for restaurant workers going for 14 days, but after that he’s relying on the generosity of sponsors from the relief fund, and individual donors to keep it going.