When disaster hits, restaurant families have a new place to turn

The industry is helping its own through a reinvigorated aid resource called CORE. Here’s how it rescued the victims of a historic tornado.
Not much was left of Mayfield, Ky., after the tornado. / Photo: Shutterstock

The Carr family has witnessed plenty of ups and downs while running restaurants in Mayfield, Ky., for three generations. On Dec. 11, 2021, the plusses began and ended with being alive.

The day before, authorities had warned that severe weather was rolling into the area, with the conditions near ideal for tornados. Sure enough, one of historic proportions developed southwest of the western Kentucky hamlet, more than 100 miles away. Chances were strong that it would peter out before reaching the area. Still, Daniel Carr decided to head home from his charge, Carr’s Steakhouse, and keep an eye on the weather updates.

“It was looking worse and worse,” recalls Carr. Tornados can rip through an area in a flash. This one wasn’t quitting. It would eventually run for three hours, tearing through 165 miles across multiple states.

“Carr’s is in a 150-year-old building, so it wasn’t the safest place to be,” says Carr. “I called up my brother,” the manager on duty, “and told him to send everyone home.”

Carr then huddled down in his own home with his wife and kids as the wind hit Mayfield that night with the force of a freight train.

The next morning, they crawled over the rubble outside their home to find much of the town had been leveled, leaving what looked like a war zone.

“We walked about 10 minutes, stepping over downed trees and wires,” Carr continues. “We went to where our restaurant had been. It was just a pile of lumber and bricks. We dug through the rubble to find the safe and our payroll, so we knew exactly what we had.” And it wasn’t much.

Across the street was the barbecue restaurant his grandparents had operated and where Carr had learned the business. It, too, had been demolished.

He managed to reach all the members of Carr’s staff. “About a dozen had lost their homes,” says Carr, who employs 30 people at the restaurant. But “everybody was in a safe place, and they were all alright. That was the priority.”

Not all neighbors were so lucky. According to authorities, 57 people were killed. Twenty-two of them had lived in or around Mayfield.

Even those who were physically unscathed faced the prospect of having no home, no workplace and considerable clean-up bills. The employees of Carr’s Steakhouse might have worked elsewhere—if there was any elsewhere left. “We’re a pretty small town, and we lost about 10 restaurants,” says the proprietor.

Then, out of the blue, Carr got a phone call from a group that identified itself as CORE, or Children of Restaurant Employees, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families in the business get through a rough financial stretch. It provides the funds needed to pay essential bills such as rent, utility charges, mortgage fees, even car-loan payments. The money is a gift, not a loan, and is not taxed as income.

It does not pay medical bills, but a member of the industry who’s incapacitated by an illness can apply for assistance to cover living expenses for themselves and their children. The money can also be used to cover the cost of medical equipment or pharmaceuticals.

“I didn’t know it existed until I got the call,” says Carr. He alerted the group to the needs of his employees and other local restaurateurs who’d lost their establishments.

“They called me in tears,” he says, looking a little choked up himself as he recalled the day. “They’re full of pride. They didn’t want to ask for help.”

CORE reached them via the internet and phone calls. The group follows the same privacy rules that protect medical patients from having any personal information released without their permission. A grant recipient’s situation only comes to light if they indicate they’d like to spread the word through a testimonial.

Carr was so moved by his CORE experience that he’s become an ambassador for the service, helping to publicize the service through media interviews and appearances.

CORE is not new. It was started by the alcoholic-beverage sector of the business as a way to help members whose families were dealing with a medical emergency or death in the family. The scope was expanded to help the victims of natural disasters in 2016 after fires devastated Gatlinburg, Tenn.

The efforts snagged the attention of Sheila Bennett, an industry veteran who played key roles in broadening the activities of ProStart and No Kid Hungry. Now, as executive director, she’s similarly striving to expand the scope of CORE to help more restaurant families.

She has already stepped up the group’s aid efforts. “They had been receiving about five applications a week,” she said in an interview with Restaurant Business. “We helped over 400 families last year, with the average grant being about $2,000.”

The money is provided in several ways. Rent and mortgage payments are made directly by CORE to the recipient’s landlord or lender. Funds for things like medicines is provided as a gift card. “We have guardrails around the gift card so you can’t cash out,” Bennett says. The approach also provides CORE with a running account of where the money is being spent.

The approval process has been re-engineered to be simple, given the plight of many applicants, but thorough. It begins with a short online form that’s reviewed by CORE.

If someone is applying in the wake of a natural disaster, “we ask for validation,” says Bennett. “Validation can be taking pictures with your phone.”

Similarly, documentation is required for any claimed expenses. “The number one thing is their rent or mortgage payment,” says Bennett.

“Then we have a committee meeting,” she continues. “The cases are discussed and reviewed. We look at what we’ve done before for similar situations,” and a grant amount is determined.

The demand is great, she notes. Research has shown that 55% of restaurant employees have a child living at home. CORE data indicates that 63% of this year’s grant recipients are mothers raising their kids solo.

About 86% of the grant requests fielded by the organization arise from medical emergencies that disrupt or eat up a family’s income, and about 10% come in the aftermath of natural disasters such as the Mayfield tornedo. The remaining situations often involve a death in the family.

CORE raises its funds through contributions from the industry. Those efforts extend to appeals for support at the last two Restaurant Leadership Conferences, Restaurant Business’ annual top-to-top conference for restaurant chain franchisors and franchisees.

Yet the group’s budget remains relatively tight. Bennett says her fundraising goal for this year is $1.7 million, with a stretch goal of $2 million.

“We’re asking restaurateurs to help by raising funds in their restaurants,” says Bennett. A garden-variety rounding-up fundraiser, where customers donate however much change is needed to round up a bill to the next highest dollar, could bring the program another $500,000 from a single quick-service chain, she estimates.

Starting in October, CORE will run a three-month fundraising campaign themed Serving Up Hope. Restaurants are invited to enlist employees and customers in the drive. Suppliers are also being asked to help the cause.

“No gift is too small,” says Bennett.

Nor is it likely to be unappreciated, according to Daniel Carr. The sites of his and his grandparents’ restaurants are still empty lots right now, and it’s uncertain if Carr’s will ever reopen.

But he did manage to open a small breakfast and lunch place, Carr’s Café, just outside of town. “We were able to employ about six people,” he says with evident pride.

For more information on CORE, click here. To donate, go here.

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