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Southern Heroes: The Lee Initiative

Southern Heroes: The Lee Initiative
Written by Erin Byers Murray | Photo by Neon Bites

Be the Change

How a chef-led initiative is fighting to empower the now-ravaged restaurant industry

It’s been a long year for restaurants as they battle to stay afloat. The shutdowns last March were just the beginning as many of these small, independent businesses turned from bustling community hubs into shuttered spaces, then meal distribution centers, take-out operators, and benefactors for laid-off staff. When those that were allowed and able to reopen did, it was against impossible odds with limited-capacity seating, threat of the virus, and customers who weren’t always willing to follow health guidelines. Yet, in spite of so many challenges, countless chefs, restaurant employees, bartenders, and owners were called to activism—for their staff, for their own businesses, and for the future of the industry. Here, we look at a chef-led effort that has, through herculean efforts, given hope to their own community and beyond.

The LEE Initiative

In the year of the pivot, the LEE Initiative—short for “let’s empower employment”—embodied the term. Co-founders chef Ed Lee of Louisville’s 610 Magnolia and managing director Lindsey Ofcacek have reimagined their nonprofit to consistently act swiftly in order to meet the immediate needs of their community.

What started in 2018 as an effort to combat the industry-wide issues brought to light during the #MeToo movement—they established an intensive mentorship called Women Chefs Program—has exploded into a fund-raising force. Over a two-week period in March 2020,  the organization (shortened to TLI) set up relief kitchens in nineteen US cities, including its own, in order to get hot meals and essentials into the hands of out-of-work food service employees. They installed a community kitchen, run by one of the female chef mentees from the Women Chefs Program, in one of Lee’s now-closed establishments. Once restaurants started to reopen, they bolstered the commitment between independent restaurants and small family farms, purchasing thousands of pounds of produce through their Restaurant Reboot program. They’ve launched a massive initiative to feed eight thousand meals to public school children and their families every week, hiring fifty out-of-work line cooks to prep inside the dormant kitchens at Churchill Downs. Another set of relief kitchens, this time for out-of-work musical touring employees, arrived in the fall. And they’re providing direct grants for food service workers and restaurants as they get back on their feet. Forget pivot—TLI is making seismic, industry-supporting slam dunks.

The mission, says Ofcacek, is “to create small impactful programs that directly help people in the industry.” Every program starts with a bottom-up approach. “We’re asking people what they need in that moment,” she says. “This was an entire industry who lost their jobs through no fault of their own and who historically don’t have a lot of safety net.”

The relief kitchens, which started by serving three hundred meals to Louisville’s food industry workers, were swiftly expanded to other cities thanks to the help of Maker’s Mark, which pooled funds from their budget of cancelled on-site promo events. That partnership led TLI to approach other big-name brands like American Airlines, Omni Hotels, and Audi, all of whom stepped up with both financial donations, as well as food, space, and even a fleet of vehicles to move produce from farms to restaurants. Beyond that, funding has been grassroots. “I never could have imagined it but for every dollar that we received from corporations we received about $5 in donations from people across the country,” Ofcacek reports.

As for their original mission of mentoring female chefs, it remains a top priority. “The number of women leaving the industry is at a record rate compared to men right now. It’s staggering,” Ofcacek says. “We want to focus on getting women back into these leadership roles again.” In 2021, that means possibly expanding the program nationally or to include women in the spirit and beverage world. “Our big focus now will be rebuilding and re-growing the industry that we want to see,” she adds. (leeinitiative.org)

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