In the Field

Southern Soul’s Firebox Feeds Community

By: The Local Palate

Bufkin recalls, “It all really goes back ten years ago March 27, 2010 when our building burned down. The following week, the community rallied around us and propped us up. They did everything from benefits to fundraisers. One guy rode up on his bicycle to give us a check to cover our employees. We were just touched. That was the point when we finally got back off the ground, and we just made a pledge to ourselves that we were going to do everything we can to pay it forward.”

Initially, Southern Soul got involved with natural disaster relief. “We’re prone to hurricanes around here,” admits Bufkin. “We went to Alabama when the tornado hit Tuscaloosa. We just came to work, and Harrison said ‘Grab a bag and get in the truck. We’re going to Tuscaloosa!’ There were five of us cooking there, then after that there were 3-4 hurricanes.

Bufkin and Harrison and their crew were already participants in the St. Simon’s Food & Spirits Festival contributing to Hospice of the Golden Isles, and worked with that group for 3-4 years. Eventually, they split from that event to concentrate on their own new barbecue festival which they named Firebox. Along with the festival, they formed the Firebox Initiative with a small leadership group that included Sapp’s wife, Kitty. “That’s when we developed what we wanted to do,” recalls Bufkin. “We took a page from The Giving Kitchen and how they do things in Atlanta. They concentrate on traumatic major medical situations. We’re still able to help monetarily just for people with hardships, while they’ve gone straight to major medical expenses. They did help out when the hurricane hit here a couple years ago, and helped out a lot of our people with checks.”

The Firebox Initiative concentrates on SSI and the surrounding counties including Brunswick and Jekyll Island. Kitty Sapp explains the process: “They go through an application on the website via email or mail or even through texts. There’s a few of us on the board that review them and approve them. We’ve helped about 600 people so far by giving out $250 COVID crisis grants to help them with the downtime of not working and waiting for unemployment benefits. It’s been really interesting to see how helpful this charity has been. Before the pandemic, we’d helped maye 20 people over the first two years.”

The group didn’t have to reach out to find potential beneficiaries of their largesse. Bufkin says, “Before COVID, it was kind of organic. If you knew somebody who knew somebody, we’d get in touch with you and offer to help or they would be referred to us.”

Kitty says they’ve tightened up their procedures a bit in the face of so many requests. “Now we have the application, and now that it’s gone on for several months, we’ve had people come back to us with secondary applications. Instead of just giving them another $250, we pay some bills for them directly to their landlord or Georgia Power.”

When Southern Soul and their sister restaurant Frosty’s Griddle & Shake shut down early in the pandemic, the crew threw themselves into the Firebox. Kitty was grateful for the distraction, saying,“It gave me something else to concentrate other than not working and worrying about not working. I reached out to a lot of other restaurateurs on the island to help out some of the people who had helped us out with Firebox. Then that money that we had in that account started to dissipate. The generosity of people who found out about what we were doing really kept us afloat, and we’ve been able to help out everybody who was on our list.”

Firebox is fully staffed by volunteers and doesn’t pay any fees for administration. This includes putting on the BBQ pro-am event that is paid for out of Southern Soul’s coffers. As a family affair, sometimes the office gets a little crowded. Harrison shares, “Kitty made us open up. We did some ‘Feeding Firebox’ fundraisers here for a couple of days, and then Griffin came up with an idea to involve almost every restaurant on the island.”

Bufkin jokes, “Kitty said, ‘Y’all get out of my house!’ so we came up here and Harrison fired up the grill. We sold everything that Harrison cooked. We basically just put a big cardboard sign up front that said ‘Butt Sale” and put a post up on Facebook. We had a moment where we thought ‘Maybe we’ve been doing this wrong the whole time? We should have been selling whole butts and slabs.’ We made like five grand that one day selling whole pork butts and gave all that money to Firebox.”

Other restaurants jumped on the bandwagon and started offering specials with proceeds going to Feeding Firebox. There turned out to be an added benefit for the places that called Bufkin to participate. “We were all doing like a quarter of what we were normally doing. It helped people realize that the other restaurants were open and that we were open. We did that for like three weeks, and it was really good, really fun. We were about down to zero in the Firebox account and were looking around wondering what to do. We just couldn’t help anybody out right now. And then all of the sudden we went from zero to another hundred thousand dollars in the bank right then.”

Kitty adds, “It was all from within our community and for our community, and that’s why we’re doing it.”

While Bufkin and the Sapps are unsure if their annual Firebox BBQ pro-am will be happening this fall, Griffin promises, “All systems are go for the people that can make it. We’re bringing in our friends to cook on weekends and calling that Feeding Firebox, too.” What started out a once-a-year event to raise a little money for their community has now blossomed into a year-round relief effort, but don’t expect the Firebox team to take the credit. As Bufkin says, “It ain’t us. It’s the people writing the checks!”

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