Shift notes by Lee Schrager

Hear from the creator of Miami’s largest food festival

REAL STORIES ABOUT KITCHEN REALITIES

Shift Notes is a digital space on The Hungry Post’s platform for hospitality professionals to vent and speak their truth about the past, present and future of our industry. It’s unfiltered and real. So far we’ve heard from Chef Michael Beltran & Chef Michelle Bernstein, Larry Carrino and Mike Ortiz. Next up is Lee Schrager. 

We can’t say that we know Lee Schrager on a personal level. However, what we do know is that Lee is a visionary. This is evident with his execution of the largest food festival in Miami, Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF). Thousands of locals and out-of-towners reserve an entire week in February for the opportunity to taste the food of America’s most acclaimed chefs. 

To date, SOBEWFF has raised $28 million for the Florida International University Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management and the Southern Wine & Spirits Beverage Management Center located on campus. The ability to create a charitable food festival that has raised millions of dollars for students entering the world of hospitality, is a testament to Lee’s dedication and love for the industry. And even in these grim times, his drive continues, aiming to help restaurants, hotels and bars in South Florida. 

They say he is always three steps ahead of everyone, wondering what he’s cooking up next…

Take it away Lee.

As I sit here writing today, I cannot believe how much the world has changed in just five months.

We had just come off our 19th annual Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival presented by Capital One in Miami Beach at the end of February. We were hearing in the news about this strange virus that was wreaking havoc in other parts of the world and had made its way to the U.S., but it seemed like something happening way off in the distance. The Festival was a huge success and my team was already thinking about how we were going to make next year’s 20th anniversary bigger, better and more impactful than ever. Just a few weeks later, our offices and other businesses were closed, restaurants and bars (including many that have continually supported our Festivals shut down, and everyone was in crisis mode, trying to stay safe and just survive.

It didn’t take long to figure out how devastating this pandemic would be for the hospitality industry. In mid-March, I was hearing from many colleagues, chefs, restaurant owners and friends who were desperately afraid of how they would keep their businesses afloat and support their families. My team quickly organized a conference call with some of the most well-known chefs in our South Florida community and asked them, “What can we do?” Unanimously they said, please help us pay our employees who are so financially vulnerable. With that, we jumped into action.

In less than two weeks from the date of that call, we announced the launch of the SOBEWFF® & FIU Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Relief Fund. Thanks to partners including Bacardi USA, Badia Spices, Luxco, Mast-Jägermeister US, Shaw-Ross International Importers and Voli 305 Vodka, we had already raised an initial $1 million to provide grants to independently owned and operated restaurants and bars in South Florida. A series of socially distant bake sales at my home in Coral Gables helped keep the Fund top of mind in the community and raised more than $140,000 for the cause. The money went out to restaurants and bars in need as quickly as it came in, and by June we had issued more than $1.6 million in grants. 

We heard the call from our hospitality family in New York as well, and in May established the NYCWFF Restaurant Employee Relief Fund. We quickly launched a new virtual NYCWFF at Home presented by Bank of America cooking series, and instantly had the support of some of the top chefs and personalities who had always participated in our Festivals. That series just wrapped after hosting 35 classes and thanks to proceeds and sponsor support, raised more than $250,000 for restaurant and bar relief in New York.

David Grutman Lee Brian Schrager

Our supplier community also stepped up, not only to support our programs but with their own powerful initiatives that raised both much needed funds and awareness of the need for relief. This experience was eye-opening for many and highlighted how vulnerable the entire hospitality industry and all of its employees can be – literally from one day to the next. It made my team, as well as everyone I know, start to think about a new normal and business model that may be forever changed. It also reinforced the resilience and passion of the people in our industry – many of whom worked to give back to others in need even while they, themselves, were struggling.

Then, just as it seemed we were starting to flatten the curve on the COVID-19 pandemic and businesses were beginning to reopen, the video of the Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds went viral. The outcry throughout communities across the nation was like nothing we’ve seen in decades and the calls to fight racial injustice were louder than ever. It was a turning point for people and businesses across the country – who paused and said, “What can we do better?” This was another moment of self-reflection for the hospitality industry, which has been slow in its progress to improve diverse representation. It’s something that we’ve been working hard to address and bring to light through our Festivals – both with our programming and participating talent – but we still have work to do. I was very proud that Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, where I wear my “other hat” and serve as the Senior Vice President of Communications & Corporate Social Responsibility, quickly took action as well. After publicly denouncing the recent events of racial injustice, as well as all instances of discrimination, our leadership team rallied together to listen to our employees who were hurting and took action to improve our communities.

Giada De Laurentiis & Lee Brian Schrager

Earlier in the year, we had already announced a $1 million commitment to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to connect Southern Glazer’s with the organization’s diverse talent pipeline and provide mentoring and professional development opportunities to students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We decided to enhance our commitment to supporting the Black community and immediately announced a $100,000 donation to the Equal Justice Initiative, as well as two scholarship programs for black students at Florida A&M University and through the Black Hospitality Initiative. Additionally, we committed to funding two diversity-themed courses for high schools in Florida and Texas and also launched a supplier minority development initiative to help support Black- and minority-owned businesses. We took a hard look inside our organization as well, and launched a series of listening town halls and enhanced diversity training initiatives. 

It’s unfortunate that it often takes a crisis to force people into action. And I always say, tough times bring out the best and worst in people. However, after watching our industry come together to support each other and our communities during these unprecedented challenges and emotional issues, I feel more optimistic than ever about our long-term prospects. Let’s not let these challenges be just moments in time that we hope to move past.

Let’s make them watershed moments that change our course permanently and for the better. As a hospitality community, let’s take what we do best – bringing people together to celebrate and serve – to help make a meaningful and long-lasting difference.