As if the slowdown of summer wasn’t enough to tighten the wallets of Houston’s hospitality employees in August, a week (or more) of Harvey-related closures and a lack of Labor Day business have nearly maimed the local food and beverage industry. Without being able to go to work and trying to dry out post-hurricane, it’s been a tough three weeks for service people and restaurateurs.

Warning: Video may cause tears.

And who can blame them for feeling glum? Their customers are hurting, their distributors were in a bind and for the restaurants that didn’t suffer water damage, many were serving (and continue to serve today) as packing facilities for food to feed first responders, volunteers and the public, at no charge. Restaurants across Southeast Texas haven’t been able to recover financially from Harvey, and the outlook for the hospitality industry through the rest of the year isn’t too sunny. For employees that make 95 percent of their income through gratuity, it’s an extremely difficult situation … especially for those who have had their homes and cars flooded.

For restaurateurs who have been rehabilitating their restaurants, there may not be a chance to make up for lost revenue in the foreseeable future. The cost of remodeling businesses and homes combined with a hurting local economy will test communities in Houston. Cantonese restaurant Hunan Garden in Kingwood took in waist-deep water, and all of their dining furniture and kitchen was ruined. They shared photos of their ruined restaurant on Facebook. “We had to throw away hundreds of pounds of food since our storage room, walk-in cooler and freezer were all flooded. Our furniture is ruined. The water was so strong that our trash container even floated away.”

While the restaurant was being cleaned and pieced back together, owner Jenny Wang and her staff used what they could of their kitchen equipment to prepare food for first responders and to feed the residents of Kingwood neighborhood Woodstream while homeowners cut out their sheetrock, threw away years of memories and scraped mud from their homes.

What emotional and financial stresses homeowners are going through, some business owners are also experiencing. Wang realized the severity of the flood damage after seeing a video posted on Facebook. “I saw a video of someone in a boat floating down West Lake Houston Parkway in front of my restaurant. The intersection was closed for 3 days after so I had to patiently wait until I could get in to assess the damage.”

An all-too-common scene in Houston. Photo by Kimberly Paul

An all-too-common scene in Houston. Photo by Kimberly Paul

Étoile beverage director Kimberly Paul shared photos of her gutted home on Facebook. After couch surfing for days following Harvey’s landfall, she’s now rebuilding her house, just like many of her customers. “The biggest hurdle is adjusting to the new normal. People had their lives completely turned upside-down. To expect things to go back to where they were before Harvey is not realistic,” she told us. “We’re an industry that is dependent on people having fun and getting out, but right now it’s just not a priority. Changing this mindset will take some time, but I’m sure this new-found sense of community will have people coming out sooner than we originally believed.”

How can hospitality industry employees bounce back if some of their customers are also in the same position? Simply dine out, if your budget allows it. From coffeeshops to fine dining, every visit helps. “If you can swing it, please make a reservation at an upper-tier restaurant and splurge a little. Then tip the hell out of your server with cash,” says Banville Wine Merchants manager Jeremy Hart. “These businesses employ some the best chefs, sommeliers, bartenders and general managers.  Our brightest light in this city is our restaurant scene, and it is important we take care of [the hospitality industry] as well as they do for us on birthdays, anniversaries, at family dinners, etc.”

A few weeks ago, Raj Natarajan approached My Table with a fundraising event he and Chris Poldoian, GM at Camerata, had been discussing. The basis was a way to raise money for hospitality employees who have been displaced by hurricane Harvey, an idea brought to them by Hart. Over the course of relief efforts and through collaborating with other industry professionals, Wine Above Water began to take shape.

Chris Poldoian jumped in to offer Camerata as a venue for the event,” explained Natarajan. The event has been tagged as Wine Above Water. “Once that occurred, wineries, importers, distributors, collectors and individuals in the community and across the country made generous offers of help and contributions. We realized shortly after that it would be necessary to partner with an effective 501c3 in order to maximize the effectiveness of these offers,” Natarajan told us by email. “After evaluating a couple of options, Southern Smoke came out as the best fit — they generously offered to let us plug into the effort they already had going, thus reducing replication of efforts, and their partnership with Legacy Health Services assured the funds raised would be distributed in the most efficient manner possible.” 

Southern Smoke is a foundation and fundraiser which has raised money for multiple sclerosis in years past. Headed by Chris Shepherd, several Houston chefs (and some non-Houston talent) come together to dazzle Southern Smoke ticketholders with an over-the-top smorgasbord of barbecue and drinks. This year chefs John Besh, Aaron Franklin, Rodney Scott, Jason Stanhope, Ashley Christensen and Mike Lata will come down to Houston and participate in the rain-or-shine event on Sunday, October 22, 2017. (You can buy tickets here.)

Chef Chris Shepherd along with Houston chefs Justin Yu, Seth Siegel-Gardner, Ryan Pera and Terrence Gallivan will host Southern Smoke for the third year, on October 22, 2017. Photo from

Chef Chris Shepherd along with Houston chefs Justin Yu, Seth Siegel-Gardner, Ryan Pera and Terrence Gallivan will host Southern Smoke for the third year, on October 22, 2017. Photo from

“We’re thankful to (One Fifth Houston’s) Matthew Pridgen and Chris Shepherd for allowing us to partner into their efforts and keeping this in motion,” said Hart. “Their team is working very hard as well to make this a success and the fact all of this coming together within less than a month of Hurricane Harvey is a testament to the merits of this business’s passion for people.”

This coming Sunday, September 24, Wine Above Water will kick-off an auction that will carry through to Southern Smoke. (Additional items will be added to the online auction, and the auction will close at the end of Southern Smoke at 8 pm on October 22.) The event will take place at Camerata at Paulie’s from noon until 8 pm, and guests will be able to taste wines from all over the world at the private event. Additionally, Houston restaurants have signed up to donate specialty bites to pair with the wine tastings. Tickets to the tasting event are $100 and proceeds will go to a relief fund set up to help out hospitality employees who are in need, post-Harvey. You can register for the auction online this coming Sunday.

Because this fundraising is going towards hospitality workers who need extra assistance, a link has been set up in order to allow applications to the fund, here.

Wine Above Water will be of interest to oenophiles of all backgrounds. If you’re new to learning about wine and are looking for an opportunity to talk to some of Houston’s most knowledgeable wine industry professionals, this tasting event is for you. If you’re an experienced collector and are seeking something unusual for your collection, don’t miss the auction. “The generosity of all of our donors assures that it will in many ways be a real value… [Auction] items on offer include old and rare wines, tickets to La Pauleé, amazing wine travel experiences, and some really awesome chef-driven items,” said Natarajan. Some large donors to the auction described by Hart include:

  • “Alison Smith Story of Smith Story Wine Cellars; they make incredible wines in California and Germany, as she immediately jumped out with a Big Ticket Auction Item and in a way set a tone.  The auction item: A magnum of Helluva Vineyard Pinot Noir, a day in the Anderson Valley with Smith Story a private driver (or lodging for one night), private tastings and 2-3 neighbor wineries and lunch for 2-4 folks.”
  • “Peter Wasserman of Becky Wasserman & Co. He’s not only offering a dinner for 4 in Houston with a selection of Wasserman Wines (including a discussion about the history, current status and changes in Burgundy), which is something any inspired sommelier or true Burgundy collector would want. They have also put up for auction a dinner for 4 at the home of the ever iconic Becky Wasserman (in Burgundy) and a tour of 2 wineries while in Burgundy! Thank you to David Smith of Classified Wines for helping with this too.”

I’d like to thank all of our auction donors,” Poldoian told My Table. “It’s amazing to see how quickly and generously people have supported this cause. A couple highlights for me: Kelly and Mukul Kanabar who have donated a four-person trip to Belize that includes everything from airfare to wine tastings at their restaurants to a tour of a marine reserve. There have been so many wineries that have come forward, but a big thanks go to Kerith Overstreet of Bruliam Wines for helping spread our message across Sonoma. Kerith has always been a big supporter of Houston and donates all of her winery profits to charity, so our event perfectly matches with her community-focused approach to wine.

As we transition from responding to the immediate crisis to addressing the more long-term damage caused by Harvey, our hope is the Wine Above Water can help make a small contribution to helping many of those in culinary and beverage community who were affected by the storm; it is important we take care of our community.” 

We’ll toast to that.