April 27, 2020

Small start, big execution: Feeding unemployed restaurant employees

Chef Lee's staff members handed out meals and other necessary items as part of the relief effort.

The activism, started at a 50-seat boutique restaurant in Louisville, Ky., has sparked a nationwide food relief effort that today is providing 28,000 meals each week to laid-off foodservice workers in 19 cities.

The program was launched literally overnight by Chef Edward Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia. By the time Kentucky’s directive for restaurants to close for in-person dining took effect in mid-March, Chef Lee and his cooks were handing out some 300 meals to area restaurant employees. The next evening, they distributed about 400 meals. A month on, LEE Initiative relief kitchens operate nationwide.

Staff members pack up meals for out-of-work restaurant employees in need of aid.

“We saw this would be a huge need — not just one day, and not just Kentucky,” says Lindsey Ofcacek, cofounder and managing director of The LEE Initiative, the not-for-profit organization behind the effort.

“We will offer this program until we can no longer continue financially.”

Here’s how the program has developed.

Tap into existing partnerships for funding, supplies.

“We already had a relationship with Maker’s Mark distillery thanks to The LEE Initiative’s Women Chefs Program,” Ofcacek says. “Maker’s Mark had canceled all its on-premises events in various markets, so they were able to shift the budgets from those events to us.

The meals consisted of comfort foods that traveled well and could be reheated easily

Then we reached out to chefs we knew in each of those markets to head up food relief programs from their own restaurants. Marker’s Mark provided the initial cash infusion that allowed chefs to re-hire staff and begin operations as relief centers.”

Many more companies have stepped up over the past month. “Our current partner list includes Tabasco, PNC Bank, Kentucky Fund for the Arts, Ashbourne Farms, Sysco, Creation Gardens, to name a few. They give funding, in-kind donations, and sometimes both,” Ofcacek says. Chefs at participating locations have also been tapping into their local networks for funding and product support.

Relief packages include a range of items.

“We ask that every participating restaurant hand out at least 250 hot meals per day plus assorted essentials (diapers, pet food, toiletries) and pantry items,” Ofcacek says. At the Louisville site, meals are prepped in 610 Magnolia’s catering kitchen, where cooks wearing masks can work six feet apart.


Meals tend to feature comfort foods that travel well and are easy to reheat. That said, “our food is not your typical soup kitchen fare,” Ofcacek says. Recent menus from the Louisville site featured chicken wings, buttermilk biscuits, coleslaw with barbecue sauce and scallion.

“We also make a point of including something ‘fun’ – ground coffee, hot sauce, gelato, even flowers,” Ofcacek says. “About 95% of clients are accepting aid for the first time in their lives. The fun items help relieve some of the stigma of asking for help.”

Spread the word through social media.

“Most of our PR was done through Instagram and Facebook,” Ofcacek says. Instagram in particular has been huge. The LEE Initiative homepage features the Instagram account links for each city they serve. Each individual account gives further details for people in need and for people who can help.

Screen clients.

“As they pull up in their cars, we ask them to show a paycheck stub or work schedule,” Ofcacek says. “Even a photo on their phone showing themselves at work in a restaurant would do the trick.”

And ... think big.

The Lee Initiative/Louisville has also been feeding first responders. “We partnered with Churchill Downs foodservice team to make 1,000 meals a week,” Ofcacek says.