In the Field

Memphis Chef Gives Back to His Adopted City

By: The Local Palate

Continued from Resetting the Table Series:
 “Restaurants Helping Hospitality Workers and Their Communities”

Memphis chef Kelly English has always been a leader in his community, both for his hospitality at his two modern New Orleans-inspired restaurants, The Second Line and Restaurant Iris, and for his commitment to compassionate business practices and contributions to his adopted city. 

When the pandemic struck, he moved quickly. He recalls, “We felt like we had a pretty good plan. I paid attention to what was going on in the world and how it was shutting down whole countries. I knew that business had been getting bad, and we felt that people were already making the decision not to eat out. So we were the first restaurants in Memphis to close. We shut down on a Monday, although the official order didn’t come out until Friday.” Even with his quick action and thoughtful decisions, English found himself questioning his future. “It’s crazy stressful to change your business model while you’re still trying to imagine it. I’m good at cooking food and managing logistics, but we had to cut our staff from 65 to 8 on the day we closed for dining in,” he explains. “Somewhere in the first couple of weeks of trying to do carryout I started to ask myself how we could support our community and keep our jobs.”

After some introspection, English came up with a viable model to do both. He recalls, “We figured if we could get people to donate $400, we’d throw in another hundred so we could cook for first line responders, out-of-work hospitality professionals and homeless people.” The chef ran the effort out of his third property, Fino’s, a beloved Memphis Midtown institution that he rescued by purchasing it after it had closed in late 2018. Working out of the deli’s kitchen, English and his team delivered just shy of 16,000 sandwiches to hospitals and relief centers over 2½ months time.

English had some assistance for his efforts. He shares, “We got support from The LEE Initiative and The Power of 10. I was proud to partner with Ed Lee. He and I have talked a good few times throughout this time that we’re going through. He’s an amazing dude!” But with $400 to come up with every day to keep the program going, English added “fundraiser” to his list of talents. “We got on Facebook and Instagram every day to solicit for the $400. They’d either send us a check or just Venmo me, and I’d put it in. I have a 501(c)(3) that I never knew what to do with it, so we used it for that. We also had some donations that came into us that went straight to our staff.”

English depended on faith that the donations would keep flowing in to keep the sandwiches going out the door. He recalls, “We have an amazing community! They kept it going for a good long while thanks to some amazing partners. BMW funded two full weeks of lunches, and there were just a lot of people that came out of the woodwork.”

English is happy that he was able to help so many people directly, rather than working with food banks, for example. He explains, “They already had a ton of people supporting those measures. We felt like we had a really specific way that we could help in the manner we did. In fact, there were some groups that came to us to try to give us money to do things for people, and we declined it so that they could give it to other people that could use some support right now, other restaurants.”

Eventually, English wound down the program. “We used up all the funds we had,” he says, “and that coincided with the time that we had to ensure that our own house existed. It’s like they tell you on airplanes, you need to put on your own oxygen mask first.” As much as he helped Memphis, English was deeply affected by the response of his city: “I’ll tell you that one of the most humbling things in my life that still chokes me up a little bit was to be in a community where people trusted us and just blindly sent us money to feed our fellow citizens! They didn’t ask me for any proof, they just sent us money and knew that we were going to do the right thing with it. That meant so much to me. Our team earned that trust.”

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