Stepping Up to the Plate
Houston Food Community Rides to the Rescue in the Wake of Harvey
Houston’s food service community—food and beverage wholesalers, restaurateurs and staff, bar owners, sommeliers, farmers—routinely and generously donate time and products to those in need. As Harvey’s devastation increased, their contributions in food, time and resources also grew, culminating in a humanitarian response that is breathtaking in scale and scope.
The individuals interviewed for this story alone helped produce more than half a million meals for the Houston area and Gulf Coast region. Despite their tremendous humanitarian effort, these people refuse the accolades due them as heroes: As Houstonians and human beings, it is their selfless nature to give.
“We Feed People”
Although restaurateurs Bryan and Jennifer Caswell had just opened a new location, after surveying Harvey’s aftermath and recognizing people’s devastated state, Jennifer told Bryan they had to get to work, feeding people: “You cook the food, I’ll figure out where to take it.”
Their established restaurant, Reef, had sustained water damage; the kitchen, where on a busy day Bryan and his staff produce 700 plates, was spared. Jennifer created a network of drivers and delivery points, putting the schedule on Reef’s windows in grease pencil.
“It wasn’t me, it wasn’t Bryan,” she explained. “It was a massive, massive team of people who came together.”
For two weeks following the storm, the couple, members of their staff and volunteers made between 10,000 to 20,000 meals per day.
Bryan describes it as an explosion. D’Artagnan, Brothers Produce and Martin Preferred Foods—all vendors of the Caswells—generously responded with large donations: 25 pallets of food, 20,000 pounds of chicken and equipment. Award-winning chefs stepped in: Chef Ming Tsai, Bostonarea chef and TV personality, served as relief chef in Reef’s kitchen, accompanied by Boston fitness trainer Kenji Freedman. Chefs Kelly English (Restaurant Iris and The Second Line in Memphis) and John Currence (owner of five restaurants in Oxford, Miss.) and Avi Katz (Houston’s Katz Coffee) took part, together with many other volunteers. Chef Jose Andres (World Central Kitchen) set up shop at Reef when he saw how efficient the operation was.
Meals were delivered throughout the Houston area, including the shelters at George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) and NRG Center several times a day. The Caswells sent deliveries to Beaumont and Port Arthur when need arose there. Caravaning to Rockport in restaurant vehicles and a refrigerated truck from Brothers Produce, they arrived with food for tens of thousands of people.
The Gulf Coast holds a special affinity for Bryan and Jennifer. “We love the people—crabbers and shrimpers and mostly outdoor types.” The Caswells used information from this network to identify where they were needed. They developed a distribution system: Meals ready to eat (MREs) went to places without refrigeration, vacuum-sealed food to where water could be boiled, large casseroles that could be heated to feed large groups, and raw product and equipment elsewhere.
“We sent food to first responders, emergency crews and the military, to NRG and GRB. We supplied others with food to take to the homeless,” Jennifer said.
Bryan’s experience and the high quality of donated food yielded top-quality meals: thick bone-in pork chops, Wagyu beef, seafood gumbo, apple pie. “When the situation is terrible like that and these guys are working on two hours of sleep for days, a good-tasting hot meal can offer a moment of solace. It’s better than a thank you or pat on the back,” Bryan said.
For two weeks in late September, Ford donated vehicles and funds that provided up to 800 meals per day to first responders and others. Bryan, Jennifer and their crew arrived during lunch hours to grill meals onsite at fire stations and other locations. Brothers Produce continued to donate food.
“The amount of continued outreach is amazing. It’s really important in some locations that haven’t yet recovered,” Jennifer said.
“Because Houston is a bayou town prone to flooding, we are very resilient, bootstraptype folks who don’t wait around for help,” said Bryan. What he saw during this mass effort to feed people has changed him. “I think this might end up being one of the things I’m most proud of in my life.”
An Organically Grown Effort
Cat Nguyen can’t sit still. Despite being driven out of her basement apartment by flooding, she reached out to help others in need. Connecting with colleagues in Houston’s hospitality industry, her efforts evolved as the storm grew. Dutch Small, a publicist stuck in Atlanta, asked in a Facebook post if someone could deliver food from Hugo’s to GRB. Cat saw her opportunity: “I realized this was how I could help and be the most effective. I know the area,” she said. She made three trips to GRB with food from Hugo’s and Biryani Pot on Westheimer and other supplies.
Following Dutch’s information, she learned that half a ton of frozen beef, donated by Rocking 711 Ranch and stored at Grand Prize Bar, had been secured by Carrie Knight, who together with her husband, chef Richard Knight (Breaking Bread Pop-Up Series), had been working on food relief since Harvey’s onset. From this donation, meals were prepared by teams at Caracol, Better Luck Tomorrow and Saint Dane’s Bar and Grill and others. “They all said ‘Yes, how can we help?’” Cat said. She began coordinating food donations from industry vendors, restaurants without power and individual donors, linking food preparation sites with delivery logistics. She shared her Venmo account to hold monetary donations and make payments.
The ad hoc team consolidated its efforts at Adam Brackman’s Midtown Kitchen Collective (MKC) on Thursday, August 31.
“There wasn’t one person was in charge—we each ran our own part,” Cat said. “The story is that a bunch of people came together organically and as a whole our sum was so much bigger than our individual parts.”
Claudia Solis, Matthew Wettergreen and Jonathan Beitler created ihavefoodineedfood.com, coordinating food distribution from operating restaurants to shelters in need. An army of volunteers ran a cold line producing sandwiches, wraps and tacos, with production reaching 1,800 meals per hour. El Bolillo, Slow Dough and La Reyna partnered with the MKC team to keep them stocked with rolls, sliced bread and tortillas.
Chef Knight ran the production of hot meals with another army of volunteers ranging from experienced line cooks to home cooks. “Richard was able to crank out tens of thousands of meals daily from MKC, a commissary kitchen that he’d never worked in before,” Cat said. “He inspired everyone to keep going.”
Cat set up a grocery to supply food and other essentials to 30 commercial restaurant kitchens, who would prepare food and return the next day with thousands of meals ready for distribution through ihavefoodineedfood.com. As organization improved, Cat began to design menus, requesting specific donations to produce family-style meals, such as grilled chicken tossed with squash and asparagus over rice. She coordinated deliveries, by requesting box and refrigerated trucks.
Cat’s operational prowess impressed Chef Knight, who said she was the organizational backbone of the relief kitchen.
“Without her skills we would have been lost. The ‘magical grocery store’ that she created was how we all kept pumping out the volume of food that we did as fast as we did,” he said. “She organized the stream of donated raw food items coming into the kitchen. Cat was definitely a major player in our disaster relief dream team.”
“Most of us knew each other but this whole thing brought us a lot closer together—we all gained a family from it. None of us knew how big it was going to get. We served 250,000 meals after we got to MKC,” Cat said. “We were able to help so many people, even in and around the Beaumont area.”
Grassroots that Propagated
Pat Greer—of Houston’s Pat Greer’s Kitchen—has extensive contacts in the food community who feed the poor and share her concerns about wasted food. Realizing that the need for food post-Harvey would be great, Pat reached out. On Monday and Tuesday of the storm, she worked at the Kitchen, producing rice, beans and greens, and sandwiches to share with people who needed food. “I gave Tracy Hamblin of Houston Food Not Bombs (FNB) and Jay Hamburger everything already packaged so all they had to do was hand it out at various locations,” Pat said.
On Wednesday Pat learned that 500 to 1,000 meals were needed to feed people at BBVA Compass Stadium. Knowing she would need help, she called colleagues at Les Dames d’Escoffier, and learned that meal preparation and distribution was being coordinated through different kitchens, including Reef and Midtown Kitchen Collective.
“They got me 500 meals that I added to the 100 that I made. They started calling me when they had extra food and I was finding people to distribute it to.” Pat and her contacts continued to work as the number of needed meals grew into the thousands.
“Tracy was picking up at Brennan’s every night; one night she picked up around 2,000 meals. Jay was picking up another 500 to a thousand, and Jessica Wilt of Central City Co-Op was picking up and taking out west for Cajun Navy to apartment complexes, trailer parks—any place where people didn’t have food,” Pat said. “People are remarkable—they want to help. We have an amazing community in Houston.”
When she was first asked to hand out 500 meals a day, she and Phillip Picone contacted fellow FNB volunteer Andrew Cobb with West Street Recovery. He directed them to a neighborhood in dire need near Tidwell. For almost two weeks, they knocked on doors in these and other neighborhoods to let people know where free food was available. If they had leftover food, they went to GRB, where many of the homeless recognized Tracy. There she also began distributing meals with people from Altruist Relief, which serves free hot meals from a mobile industrial kitchen.
“It’s great when someone shows up with hot food. In some places, the need is still there—people who are mucking out their homes can’t cook,” Tracy said. “This is where my realm is. I’ll continue to fill the need as long as I can.”