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Hometown Heroes

So many stepped up when the city was down

February’s unexpected deep freeze hit a lot of Austinites extraordinarily hard. Already struggling nearly a year into a global pandemic, the storm that brought Austin to a standstill left millions without electricity, hot water or both, the least fortunate among us without shelter, medical help, enough to eat or clean drinking water.

While outside resources and assistance were scarce early on, the kindness in the community and people’s willingness to help neighbors and strangers was abundant. Austinites generosity was especially apparent in the hospitality industry. Led by mobilization efforts of Good Works Austin and World Central Kitchen and amplified by the texts, calls and PR skills of a collective of communication execs, Austin showed its beauty in its people. WCK partnered with Siete & Loro to prepare 1000 lunches for housing units as well as the Complex Care Clinic, Chef Kevin Fink and teams at Hestia and Emmer & Rye provided between 600-800 meals to those in need per night the first five days. Easy Tiger paused preparing for their grand opening and pivoted to feed people and Cara Caulkins, Jane Ko, Chelsea McCullough and Kristy Owen acted quickly to put their skill sets to use, starting an Austin Winter Storm Relief GoFundMe that raised nearly $160,000 at press time, contacting restaurants to open to feed those in need and spreading the word on where help was needed most immediately.

Caulkins tells Austin Life, “What started with Deep Eddy Vodka and Kendra Scott offering us funds to get free meals to the public and to hospitals turned into a week of 15-hour days on email, phone and text coordinating free public meals to hospitals, low-income communities in need and much more. Through the power of social media and our day jobs that connect us to the local news, we led a lot of the communication on where to get resources to people who desperately needed it.” 

Ko says the GoFundMe they started led to more than 40,000 warm meals going to the community, EMS, warming centers, Section 8 Low Income Housing, and more. She notes that their efforts were a win/win for restaurants and people in need because “Our local restaurants lost out on the biggest weekend of the year (Valentine's Day), so we helped by purchasing meals from them when they would have had to throw out all this excess food.”

McCullough shares, “As a born and raised Austinite, it was truly inspiring to see my community come together and provide help wherever it was needed. It energized us, even through crisis, to step up and do more for our community on a daily basis. Once we realized how dire the hunger situation was in Austin the restaurant owners sprang into action, using any inventory they had left."

One of the many restaurants that went above and beyond is Easy Tiger. Mike Stitt, CEO of Easy Tiger, shared, “Our team gets on a call at 7:55am every day and when we looked at the weather forecast and saw things were getting worse, we started going into storm prep mode not knowing how bad it would be. We asked, ‘How can we feed Austin?’ It was difficult because we lost power and water at the bakery and we had some bread in the bakery we couldn’t get out because the roads were already kind of bad. But, little by little we started getting the extra bread we had out."

Michelle Wallis, executive director of the Austin Ed Fund praised the hospitality industry for helping them continue feeding the students and families in the Caregiver Meal Program (funded by Ed Fund via the city and donations).

Stitts says, “We’re part of a group that does Caregiver meals and during the pandemic the school district realized the families of students who were on free and reduced lunches needed food and we realized some of these families were so underprivileged they were sharing their kids meals, so they partnered with local restaurants to provide the meals. Those are paid, but it’s win/win because we hire additional people to make the meals, people get fed and we take any profits and put it back into the community."

He adds, “What was amazing is our team, even without power or water themselves, came in and made meals with all the food we had. One of the things I love about Austin is it’s a city that’s big enough to matter but small enough to care and they take care of each other.”

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