Paul Lovato was under no illusion this year would be any easier than 2020. But he hadn't imagined this: 59 straight hours, as of Wednesday morning, without power in his house, "not even a single second," he says.
Miraculously, the power was on at his restaurant, Jambo's BBQ, located in Arlington, Texas, about five miles away from Lovato's home. The BBQ joint had opened in 1931 as the Triangle Inn, a dining hot spot with a secret poker room upstairs once favored by Al Capone. So early Tuesday morning, Lovato, who is from the South Side of Chicago, rolled out of bed and hopped in his Ford F-150 SuperCrew truck to pick up two employees, who agreed to come in.
Then they got busy smoking the chicken. From 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., they gave away chicken soup with egg noodles to anyone desperate enough to brave the Arctic air and impassable roads by foot for a hot meal.
Lovato is one of a handful of small business owners working to feed and shelter hungry and cold Texans, after a freak winter storm dropped a record 3-to-5-inch snowfall on the area, overwhelming the state's energy grid and leaving more than 2.8 million households without power, as of Wednesday. While Ercot, the company that manages the electric grid, has been struggling to restore power, residents have been checking into hotels, staying with friends who still have power, and relying on government resources for aid--all amid a pandemic.
Those fortunate enough to withstand the madness are now helping out their community, some with backing by a few of Texas's most prominent small businesses and local nonprofits.
In downtown Austin, a three-hour drive south from Arlington, a grassroots effort to provide free meals to those in the community who need it--led by Deep Eddy Vodka, the dating app Bumble, and jewelry brand Kendra Scott--was taking shape Tuesday. "Things were looking a little scary, and then you add on the power outage, and you just see a community in so much need," says Jennie Wait, associate field manager of Deep Eddy Vodka, a local distillery.
After a conference call with her field marketing team that morning, in which everyone determined they had to do something, Wait, who still somehow had power, began making calls. That led her to Cara Caulkins, a well-connected press rep in Austin. For the next 24 hours, Caulkins--along with Chelsea McCullough, of public relations firm MYLK Collective, and content curator Jane Ko--pooled together donations from interested brands for restaurants that could safely open and handle the hours-long lines that would inevitably gather after an announcement was made on social media. Google Docs and spreadsheets were shared, and "we were in constant communication," says Caulkins. By Wednesday, she estimated that Deep Eddy Vodka, Bumble, and Kendra Scott had partnered with 20 restaurants, with more than $35,000 in donations expected by the end of the week.
Among the entrepreneurs participating in the effort is Kevin Fink, executive chef and owner of Hestia, a buzzy Austin restaurant known for its fiery local cuisine. On Tuesday, he encountered a massive leak at his other popular restaurant, Emmer & Rye, that forced him to clear out his pantry. On Wednesday, with sponsorships from Bumble and Good Works Austin, a small business advocate group, six employees served 600 free hot meals--wagyu beef chili with cornbread, Thai-style chicken larb with romaine lettuce, and Basque burnt cheesecake, among other dishes--to 200 workers from St. David's hospital and 400 customers who walked to the restaurant.
"This community has been fantastic to us throughout the pandemic, and we're all hurting right now," says Fink. With the frigid weather and outages expected to continue, he'll do it again Thursday. "We'll do it all over again, hopefully do it better, and hopefully get back to normal, but who knows?"