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ESSAY: Why Chris Shepherd loves the Houston restaurant scene…and how he says it can be saved

Chris Shepherd
Chris Shepherd (John Davidson)

Why I Love Here is a weekly feature where Texans share why they love living in Houston. If you want to submit your story, send a column to click2houston@kprc.com.

I’m lucky to live in Houston, Texas, which is by some measures the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis. In fact, the last census showed that there is no longer a “majority” in Houston. It’s a city of minorities. So for me, thinking about what it means to cook locally in Houston means going out into the different neighborhoods of my city and taking a census of my own: one of flavors, and of culinary traditions. I meet my fellow Houstonians, eat with them, learn how they cook, and then let those experiences inform my cooking. I try to tell stories through my food, stories that represent and reflect where we live. - excerpt from Cook Like a Local by Chris Shepherd

Houston’s culinary community is special. I love this supportive, diverse, delicious city. And we’re at risk of losing it all.

This spike in COVID cases in Houston has been detrimental to restaurants.

I received PPP funding and did everything I was supposed to do. I hired 100 percent of my staff back and, in many cases, paid people not to work since we didn’t have work for them to do. We’ve pivoted until we’re dizzy—H-E-B meals, Zoom cooking classes, cook at home grill kits. You name it, I’ve tried it. But we’re still at about 30 percent of last year’s revenue. The PPP is gone, which means our safety net is, too. Restaurants have razor thin margins, which means rainy day funds don’t exist in our industry, not even for successful restaurants like mine.

I wish I could temporarily close all my restaurants to ensure the safety of everyone on my staff. I don’t want to be part of the problem. But without support from the government, I don’t have the resources to shut down and wait this crisis out. If I shutter my restaurants now, none of them are coming back. I employ 200 people in this community. When I shut down, they lose their jobs. I’m no longer able to pay my farmers, cleaning companies, valet companies, linen companies, wineries, distilleries. Our reach is long. So many families’ livelihoods depend on independent restaurants.

I’m not alone in my fear. Every chef, restaurateur, cook, dishwasher, server and bartender in this city shares it. We’re walking a tightrope—taking every precaution to keep our staff healthy—physically and financially. So many people in this industry live paycheck to paycheck. We’re not used to asking for help. It’s actually something really hard for us to do.

Senators Wicker and Sinema introduced a bill called the Restaurants Act that has bipartisan support, including support from Lindsey Graham and Cory Gardner. If this bill is passed, I will be able to sleep at night. I won't have to worry about paying my staff or keeping the restaurants I've spent my life working for. This will also keep the supply chain going—my farmers can get paid, wineries, distilleries, linen companies, cleaning companies, valet companies.

So how can you help?

Contact your representatives and ask them to pass the Restaurants Act. The restaurant industry will change forever if this does not pass. We’ve already lost so many incredible restaurants in Houston forever, and many more will follow if this doesn’t pass. Click the link to take action. It takes less than one minute. https://www.saverestaurants.com/take-action/

Donate to Southern Smoke I started this foundation five years ago to take care of those in our industry in crisis. Since the beginning of COVID-19, the Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund has distributed $2.7 million to nearly 1,500 industry employees nationwide. If restaurants continue to close, restaurant workers and the entire food chain—farmers, brewers, winemakers—will need this financial support more than ever.

Let’s come together and #SaveRestaurants. If any city in the world can do it, it’s Houston.