In 2018, in response to the #MeToo movement, Louisville-based chef and restaurateur Edward Lee partnered with his 610 Magnolia colleague Lindsey Ofcacek to launch the LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative with the goal of diversifying the culinary arts. But this spring, immediately following restaurant closures to stop the spread of coronavirus, the Lee Initiative transitioned into the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, feeding hospitality industry peers out of Lee’s 610 Magnolia kitchen in Louisville. By Memorial Day, the program had grown to 19 relief kitchens, serving more than 200,000 no-cost meals to industry workers and delivering supplies like diapers, tampons, and toilet paper. In May, the LEE Initiative launched the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, set to spend $1 million over 12 months, purchasing products from small sustainable farms. We talked with Lee about activating the nationwide program, the outsized power of small kindnesses, and what’s next for independent restaurants.
Imbibe: In response to the COVID-19 crisis, you quickly pivoted the LEE Initiative to provide support for the hospitality community starting in March. What was involved in launching the Restaurant Workers Relief Program?
Edward Lee: A lot of things were in place already, and it was just a lot of serendipity. Our main focus with the LEE Initiative is to promote gender equality and diversity, so we do a lot of programming around that, but we’ve also done other things. Last year, during the government shutdown, we turned my catering facility into a relief kitchen and were feeding about 100 TSA workers a day for about two and a half weeks. It went really well, so we kept the blueprint and the financial model just for the sake of posterity—we never thought we’d do it again. When [COVID-19] happened, I knew immediately this was going to be a problem and people were going to go hungry. From a logistical standpoint, it was very easy to pivot, because we had the blueprint and we certainly had the manpower: I’d laid off 100 people, so I was able to retain some of my key employees and say, “Do you want to go into relief mode?”
How did you end up partnering with Maker’s Mark on this?
That was another thing that was really serendipitous. Maker’s Mark was our main sponsor and partner for the women’s chef initiative. The director of the LEE Initiative, Lindsey Ofcacek, made one phone call to Maker’s Mark and said, “Listen, come down and see what we’re doing because I think it’s important.” The first night we did the relief kitchen, the Maker’s Mark Diplomats were there and ready to help. They reacted so quickly and said, “This is not a Louisville problem, this is a national problem.” They asked us if we were able to replicate this in other cities, and Lindsey and I looked at each other and said, “We have to.” In one week, we activated four other kitchens in D.C., Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Seattle. We showed them the model, we proved it could work and was needed— every single day there were lines of 300 people waiting for food and supplies. In just over two weeks, we went from one kitchen in Louisville to 14 relief kitchens around the country.
So many hospitality relief efforts have focused on financial assistance. What made you decide to create relief centers that focused on food and supplies?
To me, it’s the most immediate need—the thing that can provide immediate relief, but also a sense of sanity. Grants are great—there’s nothing wrong with money— but we’ve become a center of community. In Louisville, there are people that come to us every night who tell us that it’s the one thing that gives them hope each day. In March, a florist gave us a huge delivery of free flowers and we made tiny bouquets and handed them out. I can’t tell you how many people cried and just broke down. There’s an invisible enemy in an economy that’s crumbling before our eyes. People feel helpless and powerless, and sometimes something as tiny as a fresh flower bouquet gives them strength to go another few days. By our show of kindness, it inspires people to be kind to each other and pay it forward. To me, that’s how we get through this—we don’t get through this by finger pointing and blaming and crying, “Woe is me.” We’re all allowed to have moments of weakness and to break down and cry—I’ve cried more in the last three weeks than I have in my life combined—but what gets us through is the strength and the kindness of strangers. We just want to be a part of that and to inspire people to forget about your own suffering and help people who are suffering even more. And you know, it allows you to cope with some of the darkness.
Do you expect that the Restaurant Workers Relief Program will become a permanent part of the Lee Initiative?
My hope is that we never need to do this again, but the reality is, put it this way—not just for the LEE Initiative but for the restaurant industry as a whole—we need to have a safety net, we need to be more aligned, we need a lobbyist, we need unification, we need to be a collective voice that can speak to government. We’re a trillion- dollar industry, but no one sees it as that. I think that’s what this crisis has really shown: both the greatness of what independent restaurants can do, but also the flaws, which is that we’re not unified, we’re hundreds of thousands of independent agents. This exercise of what is the strength of us collectively has been great, and shown that we can be a unified voice, protect each other, and protect ourselves.
How do you anticipate your restaurant group and the LEE Initiative changing in terms of their approach to both business and hospitality?
I think right now, all of us are literally in the forest and all we see are the trees. All I see are huge trees that are obstacles and I’m just trying to get through them. At some point we’ll be able to step back and see the forest, but it’s going to be a different forest than how we perceived it a month ago. I’ve never done a knee-jerk reaction to something and decided to change everything overnight; that same thing will apply here. I don’t even have an hour to catch my breath these days, but as soon as there’s some time I’m going to sit down and take a look at, what does hospitality mean? What do independent restaurants mean for us and for the general public? What is the public going to want from us after this? A lot of it is driven by that—does the customer want to come back to a replica of a time before COVID? Or are they going to be looking for something different, too? I think all of us are going to be a little bit changed from this, and we’re going to have to figure out what the next generation of independent restaurants looks like both for us and for customers.
What is giving you hope in this moment?
I mean, people. In March, we opened the mail and received a $20,000 anonymous check from someone. Just people. The first three or four days in Louisville, we raised almost $18,000 from $5, $10, and $15 donations. That’s a lot of donations, and they all came from people I knew were struggling and yet they had the capacity to give. For all the cynicism that’s out there in the world, this has proven to me absolutely that human beings, our capacity for good and our capacity for kindness and for giving outweighs anything that’s negative out there. Like, this is what we’re meant for as human beings— these are the times we rise together, and I think we’ll be remembered for that. All these people who are fighting through this, we’ll know we came to each other’s aid during this time, and that’s an important lesson to remember as we go back to our somewhat-normal lives after this.
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