How this Louisville-Based Initiative is Supporting Restaurant Workers
Lindsey Ofcacek of The LEE Initiative is empowering the industryRebecca Treon
March 18, 2021
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and the Audi #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories of trailblazers who have stepped up to help their communities in light of COVID-19, as well as individuals who are putting inclusion and equity at the forefront of building back better. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Rebecca Treon spoke with co-founder of the LEE Initiative Lindsey Ofcacek about the organization’s efforts to provide stability during the pandemic and beyond.
In 2017, Lindsey Ofcacek was working alongside chef Edward Lee as the general manager and wine director at 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky. But as the #MeToo movement swept across the nation, the duo decided to create a nonprofit that would address issues of equality and diversity in the restaurant industry—the LEE Initiative.
“When the #MeToo movement was hitting hard, it ended up with chef Lee and I having a lot of conversations about our personal experiences, and in the end, what we could do to help,” said Ofcacek.
Founded in 2018, the LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative set out to uplift women in the industry, partnering up-and-coming chefs with established mentors. Participants would spend at least a week working in their mentor’s kitchens, could contact their mentors whenever needed, and had their salaries paid so that continuing their education was not cost-prohibitive.
“We took on five women each year and paired them with mentors across the country. [The mentors] were women who had risen the ranks from line cooks to chef/owners to James Beard Award-winning chefs and authors of cookbooks—really incredible partners,” says Ofcacek.
The program’s benefits proved far-reaching: “They built these strong relationships with their mentors and the other women in the program; it was a way to build their community.”
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the needs of the industry shifted dramatically, necessitating direct aid to those hardest hit. With restaurants suddenly closed, the LEE Initiative quickly focused on feeding industry workers by opening community kitchens across the country through their Restaurant Workers Relief Program. With their partners at Maker’s Mark, they started a community kitchen at 610 Magnolia and soon expanded to Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and beyond.
“We opened the day after restaurants closed and 300 people showed up to pick up meals,” says Ofcacek. “We also had a grocery store stocked with everything from formula and diapers to paper towels.”
With help from their partners, the LEE Initiative facilitated the opening of 20 relief kitchens across the country in just two weeks. “When I say that chef Lee and I were sleeping in shifts, I’m not kidding,” says Ofcacek. “We had incredible partners, or we could never have done it. There was a huge hunger crisis that was about to happen.” Chefs in each city helped the kitchens open while the LEE Initiative sent cash infusions to the restaurants so they could keep staff. Ofcacek initially anticipated staying open for three to four weeks, which turned into three to four months. In total, the Lee Initiative sent out $1.4 million to independent restaurants to keep their staff employed and feeding people. To date, relief kitchens in New York and San Francisco are still operating.
To supplement the supply chain, Ofcacek and Lee created the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, purchasing $1 million dollars of product from small farms and donating it to restaurants that needed assistance during their reopening. “What a lot of restaurants were concerned about was how quickly the supply chain had broken,” says Ofcacek. “One of the things that sets independent restaurants apart is products they use, supporting the farmers that are part of their community.” The program allowed small farms to avoid selling to large national distributors and restaurants to continue their commitment to sustainability. Audi stepped in, providing a fleet of vehicles to transport the goods.
The LEE Initiative continued to create programs as the need arose. In May 2020, when the country saw waves of protests against police brutality in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, Louisville experienced another loss. David McAtee, a local barbecue chef known for community involvement, was shot and killed by the National Guard. To honor McActee’s legacy, the McAtee Training and Community Kitchen was established at Lee’s restaurant, Milkwood, located just blocks from McAtee’s business, YaYa’s BBQ. The kitchen offers would-be chefs ages 18 to 23 an internship program to learn about the restaurant business. The program—spearheaded by local Louisville chef Nikkia Rhodes, who got her start at Milkwood—also produces hundreds of meals that are served at local community centers.
The LEE Initiative has had a profound impact on the restaurant industry, but it’s not done yet. “We’re trying to look to the future. We feel like we can see the end of the pandemic insight. So now it’s time for us to focus on rebuilding our industry,” says Ofcacek. “Now that the whole thing has been burnt to the ground, we might as well rebuild with more sustainable practices and create an industry that we’re proud of.”
Rebecca Treon is a Denver-based freelance food and travel writer whose work has taken her around the globe. Her work has appeared in publications like BBC Travel, Hemispheres, Huff Post, and Tasting Table. Follow her on Instagram at @RebeccaTreon.