Toward the end of the 2020 documentary Restaurant Hustle 2020: All on the Line Chef Antonia Lafso unfurls a “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag that she passed on to each of her restaurants’ leaders. The flag is an old naval exhortation dating back to the War of 1812, but for Lafso’s team it became a rallying cry for all the work they’d done to keep moving forward and stay open in the face of all uncertainty created by the pandemic.
The documentary was produced and co-directed for the Food Network by famed chef, restaurateur and Emmy-Award winning television host Guy Fieri. The film and its follow-up in 2021, provide an intimate look into what it was like for four struggling restaurant operators during the early stages of the pandemic as they scaled back staff and changed service strategies to survive as cities and states mandated shutdowns and closed dining rooms. But as the chefs and their staff united behind slogans like “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” Fieri worked to set up programs and initiatives that helped restaurants and workers across the country bail water.
Using Fame to Better the Restaurant Industry
Fieri’s charitable drive and passion to highlight the people of the restaurant industry is present in every step of his now world-famous career. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the show Fieri is perhaps best known for, was conceived in part as a way of celebrating the mom-and-pop restaurants that are ubiquitous in every small town or big city neighborhood across the country. They are the local hangouts and generationally owned fixtures serving the unique dishes that give a community its flavor, but they often lack the name recognition and marketing dollars enjoyed by the larger chains they increasingly must compete against. A segment on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives evens the playing field by putting the restaurant in front of millions of eyeballs, driving renewed interest as people come from all over the country to experience the same food Fieri ate.
“Nothing can replace what this kind of recognition, appearing on TV, can do for these people and their businesses… for their lives,” Fieri said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “I need to keep doing this because it just needs to be done.”
The show has featured nearly 1,300 independent restaurants during its 16-year run and the Triple D effect is well documented. The show’s producers often warn operators to be ready for a sudden surge in business before filming even begins, but many have reported that even high expectations aren’t able to keep pace with the huge influx of orders. One Minnesota operator told the MinnPost that sales rose 500 percent one month after his seafood restaurant appeared in an episode in 2012 and others note the effect is long-lasting, with sales bumps occurring whenever their episode is rerun.
No one knows better than Fieri how television can make a restaurant, and he’s used that power to support the industry and the people behind it since becoming a Food Network personality. Fieri first stepped into the foodservice industry at age 10 when he sold soft pretzels from a bicycle cart. His interest only grew from there, leading him to study abroad in France and eventually open his first casual dining concepts in Northern California. Fieri’s breakout came in 2006 when he won the “Next Food Network Star” television competition and was awarded his first show, Guy’s Big Bite. He quickly proved his popularity and has since become the anchor of the Food Network lineup, hosting shows such as Guy’s Grocery Games and Tournament of Champions.
With so many programs ongoing it seems that Fieri is always on TV – and viewers are always watching. According to the Food Network, an average of 73 million people watch at least one Guy Fieri show each quarter. The company rewarded that success with a new three-year, $80 million deal in 2021, making Fieri the highest-paid chef on cable television.
The 54-year-old never seems to miss an opportunity to use his fame to benefit others. His commitment to supporting restaurants is why he convinced Discovery to redirect more than $210,000 of price money from the first season of Tournament of Champions to struggling restaurateurs. Even the sets on his shows are an opportunity to help those in need. Where most productions would have used fake, unperishable mock-ups to fill the shelves of a faux grocery store, all the food in Guy’s Grocery Games is real. After filming, it is donated to the Redwood Gospel mission, an amount equal to $350,000 in unused food last year.
Most of Fieri’s charitable work comes through his namesake organization. In 2011, he started the Guy Fieri Foundation as an initiative to teach the next generation of chefs how to cook. Today, the organization has served 120,000 meals to first responders, hospital workers and wildfire evacuees from its disaster relief trailer. It has also catered appreciation events in support of organizations such as the California Highway Patrol and allowed Fieri to entertain and cook for troops stationed in the Persian Gulf.
Although the foundation’s work to feed people during disasters is its most publicly visible initiative, culinary education remains at the heart of its mission. Each year, the foundation donates tens of thousands of dollars to the California Restaurant Association to fund scholarships for aspiring culinary workers and it also provides resources for entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry.
“I was raised to always help your community, to always help people who need help, and to participate. You have to be an active member,” Fieri said in a statement to the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation (NRAEF).
Responding to COVID-19
A recent New York Times profile described Fieri as the “Elder Statesman of Flavortown,” a person admired and revered among chef circles for his work in the kitchen and in supporting the entire industry. That veneration has only grown during the COVID-19 pandemic as Fieri took a hands-on leadership role in helping the everyday people in the industry survive the sudden and unexpected closure of restaurants. By his own estimate, Fieri figured that many mom-and-pop restaurants had only about 10 days of being closed before their money would be gone, leaving their workers without a livelihood while the pandemic swept through their communities. Understanding the lasting damage that would cause, Fieri went right to work on creating the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, a one-time $500 grant for restaurant workers across the country.
“So many people work in the restaurant industry in multiple jobs, or they’re second jobs – single moms, single parents, students, retirees,” Fieri said in a CBS News interview in April 2021. “The restaurant industry is massively important to our communities. As so, when I saw this coming, I said, ‘We got to do something to get some money to these folks.’”
Together, Fieri and the NRAEF raised more than $25 million for the fund from 50 companies and 15,000 individual donors. More than 43,000 restaurant workers received one of the grants, with 90 percent of recipients planning to use the funds to help with rent or their mortgage.
“Through thick and thin, Guy has championed the unique voice of restaurant workers, and the pandemic has been no exception,” said Greg Cook, executive vice president and general manager of Global Institutional for Ecolab, a food safety company that donated to the fund. “We’re proud to have partnered with him on the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund and thank him for his dedication to raising awareness and donations for this important cause.”
The work didn’t stop with the direct grants to workers. Ever aware of the power television brings to a cause, Fieri worked with LendingTree on Guy’s Restaurant Reboot, a primetime live-streamed special that aired in June 2021 and featured well-known chefs, musical performances and celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal attempting to recreate dishes from their favorite local eateries. The show launched the Help Rebuild Restaurants Grant, a partnership with the NRAEF and the California Restaurant Foundation that raised $300,000 for bottom-line financial support. Grants were distributed to 11 up-and-coming restaurateurs during the show and the NRAEF added another six $25,000 grants to culinary students.
Fieri’s extensive charitable work and leadership during the toughest days the restaurant industry has ever seen led him to be named the 2021 Thad and Alice Eure Ambassador of Hospitality by the NRAEF. The honor is presented to an outstanding leader, advocate and role model for today’s and tomorrow’s restaurant workers.
“Restaurants feed more than just our stomachs, they nourish our communities, and supporting the hard-working people behind these businesses is more important now than ever,” Fieri said after receiving the award.
”Guy’s leadership and quick action to help thousands of restaurant workers and operators perfectly represents the true spirit of the Ambassador of Hospitality award,” NRAEF President Rob Gifford said. “During these challenging times, Guy’s mission to support our industry and restaurant workers from all backgrounds is more important than ever. He is an inspiring leader and exceptional example for us all as we work together to get our communities and restaurant workers back on their feet, and back to building futures in this industry of limitless opportunity.”