The Guy Who Steps Up: Guy Fieri on the Importance of Giving Back Right Now

You likely know him from his shows on Food Network or from his many restaurants, but more than being a self-described “restaurant dude,” Fieri is a passionate philanthropist.

Micki Wagner

April 15, 2020

When most hear the name Guy Fieri, a blonde, spiky-haired guy who tours the country “looking for America’s greatest diners, drive-ins and dives” is what comes to mind. But what is less publicized is how incredibly passionate Fieri is about giving back—and what better time to help out in a big way than right now amidst the coronavirus outbreak? That’s what he intends to do with his newly created Restaurant Employee Relief Fund (simply referred to as “The Fund”), which he started in partnership with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

 

Fieri’s mission for The Fund is to raise $100 million to give as many struggling restaurant workers as possible $500 grants. With donations from companies like Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Wingstop, The Fund is well on its way to reaching its goal, but it could still use as much support as it can get in order to reach, or even surpass, Fieri’s $100 million goal. “To whatever degree somebody wants to get involved is the level we want them to be involved, and this isn’t a one-man band,” Fieri said. “This is a whole collaboration. We are a jam band of great people coming to get this taken care of for people.”

Fieri recently spoke to Worth about The Fund, the devastation that the restaurant industry is facing right now, why giving back runs deep for him and how you can help, too.

Q: How did The Fund come about?

A: It started as a conversation between my attorney, who does a lot of my restaurant dealings, a guy named Riley Lagesen with Davis Wright Tremaine. Riley and I were talking [about] the news that my restaurants were being closed, and we’re having this discussion about what do you do for your employees? I said, “Well, what do we do for all employees?” And then, we had a conversation about an hour later with my manager on the phone, and then three hours later, we had a conversation with the president of the California Restaurant Association on the phone. We just kept having conversation after conversation, just continuing to get a bigger and wider perspective of the enormity of the loss of all the restaurants. And that finally led us to the National Restaurant Association. We got a call together with them, [and the] National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation said, “Hey, we know how to take in money and how to get money out. We do that with the programs and the funding and the ‘this and thats’ that we do.” Awesome. Now, how do we raise the money?

 

So, that’s how it started, and fortunately, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and Riley, with Davis Wright Tremaine, had all the contacts of all the CEOs of all of the big companies, and we were able to get their email addresses. I started firing off video messages to the presidents of these companies individually, personally. As a matter of fact, I did 15 more today, to AT&T and Tito’s Vodka and Caviar, and anybody that I could get the address of, sending this message saying, “This is what we’re going through.” So, it was kind of a spitball, everybody jumping in, a lot of collaboration and a lot of big dreams and ideas. And I got to be honest with you, on the close of that Friday, we had $8 million. I said, “Are you kidding me?” I mean, did this really just happen?

It’s been an amazing effort. Pepsi was the first to jump in, and Coke pushed us over $10 million, and UberEats gave us $2 million and a $3 million-dollar matching. The CEO of Wingstop called me at home the other night at seven o’clock at night, gave The Fund a million bucks. So, it just continues to roll, and it’s just been amazing. Just amazing, amazing. Such a great effort.

So, has the funding largely come from corporate food companies?

A lot of it. Well, not just food, but yeah, a lot of corporate industry that’s involved with the restaurant industry. And that’s one of the things I say in my message to them, is the restaurant industry has been serving all of us for so long, personally and professionally or both. So, here’s a great opportunity for us to serve them. A lot of employees in the restaurant business, they aren’t going to have the opportunity to get federal or state income unemployment. There are a lot of people that are relying on their entire income coming from their multiple restaurant jobs. And the restaurant industry is so diverse. You’ve got folks from all different walks of life, so it was so fitting to have everybody that’s been benefiting off of the restaurant industry come to help the restaurant industry.

The other piece that I say to everyone [is] you may not be able to make a financial donation. That’s OK. Everybody’s in their own position, but what you can do is you can send it out on social media and maybe you’ll be the one that sends the message that gets to the one person that says, “Hey, you know what? I want to make a $10,000 donation. I want to make a $1 million donation.” So, we need all the help and support and all the members of the communities that love restaurants to give us the time to spread the message.

You got to go big, you got to think big, and we just haven’t recognized any of the obstacles. We’re not taking no for an answer. We just keep going after people, companies, and making new pitches. Somebody maybe hasn’t heard about it yet. I’ll keep beating the drum until everybody hears about it. We’re not talking about some frivolous little situation. We are talking about people in desperate need on a large level, and we need to get as much money going to these folks as we can.

This fund will benefit restaurant workers nationally, right? And how many workers will it benefit?     

Correct. The National Restaurant Association is fielding 40 requests a second right now—[that’s] how many are coming in. So, it’s just overwhelming, the amount of need out there and the amount of people. We’re on our first 60,000 recipients of the $500 grant, getting that money rolling out to them. And I just got the first few emails that came in from people that were notified of the grant, and how excited and how thankful they were. And for a lot of folks, it’s not just the money. It’s just knowing that people care about you and people are there to support you.

Even [meeting] my goal of $100 million, we won’t be able to cut all the three million people, but it gets the ball rolling, and different people have different levels of need. Like I said, certain people can’t get unemployment, so how can they get some help? One hundred percent of all donations go to the employees. There’s no red tape. There’s no admin fee. There’s no anything. One hundred percent goes to the employees.

How has this pandemic affected your restaurants and how are you supporting your staff right now?

I have business partnerships with probably 80 restaurants worldwide, everything from Carnival Cruise to Las Vegas Strip. You name it. The ones that I own directly are my concepts called Chicken Guy! And so, we went and found all of the key members of Chicken Guy! and gave them a check. That doesn’t cover them every week. It doesn’t cover the hole that they have, but it did get them started to at least cover the first week as they were waiting for the government stimulus to happen. But we have 120 employees between the two restaurants. And [for] my business partner Robert Earl and I, it wasn’t even a question, we started sending the checks.

We hear a lot about the restaurant industry in the news right now, and how devastating this pandemic has been for it, but I’m curious as someone who works in the industry, how deep is this devastation? And what do you think it’s going to take for the industry to bounce back?

Well, it’s a multi-faceted devastation. On the immediate devastation, we have people that can’t put food on the table, and we have people that are feeling hopeless about this, and families that are in despair. The next step of it is we have business owners, landlords and food purveyors, and booze and beverage purveyors, and everybody. Many businesses connect to the restaurant industry. It’s such a popular industry for the amenities that it offers, but also, it’s so big in its volume and its size and its diversity and so forth. So, on the immediate side of people, hopefully, we’re getting some immediate attention and stimulus and money and support. On the secondary side of all of the people that are affected in the next phase of it, the next facet of it, I think that it’ll bounce back. I think that people are going to [say], “I miss my restaurant. I miss my favorite coffee shop. I miss my favorite bar. I miss my favorite…” And they will come back.

Restaurants, unfortunately, are not very cash strong or reserve strong. As much of a very lucrative business as it appears to be, a lot of restaurants are working on a nine-day, two-week money float, and that’s about it. So, I think that the people will hopefully recover. The restaurants will have a tougher time getting it back up to speed. I think we are going to lose restaurants. I think we’re going to lose some of our favorites.

Depending on the city you live in, depending on the taxes, depending on the minimum wage, depending on the insurance or the sanctions, they [may] just hang it up and say, “I’m not coming back.”

After all that’s said and done, I do believe that the climate of restaurants will change a bit. I don’t think it’s going to be as drastic as I heard people predicting, but I could be wrong. I don’t think it’s going to go to no employees and order by a tablet. I don’t think it’s going to turn into everybody’s just going to order curbside and go pick it up. But I do think that we are going to learn from the situation, and I think there are going to be some implementations—be it automation, be it sanitation and safety. I think there will be a good amount of recalibration. But it’s not going to go away. The restaurant business has been around forever. The hospitality industry has been around in every culture for longer than anybody could ever remember. And it’s just going to weather this. And the great thing about the restaurant industry, as chefs and as restaurant owners and as employees, is we stick together. We help each other out, and I think that there’s going to be a lot of collaborations, and that’s what my job is being an owner and a fan and a chef and all these things. I’m just going to remind everybody when this gets wrapped up, “Let’s get out and eat, folks.” You’ve been going once a week as your routine. Let’s go twice a week from now on, for the rest of the year. Let’s buy some gift certificates.

And let me just also say this: Every industry has been hit by the pandemic. I am not shading anybody. This just happened to be what I do. I’m a restaurant dude. This is what I’ve done my whole life, and I think that everybody that has their fight for their group, their organization, their need, their focus is absolutely do what you can. This just happens to be the drum I beat because this is my industry.

What are you hopeful about right now? What’s giving you hope?

I hope we raise $100 million. I wake up every morning, and my kids…They don’t laugh at me, but my youngest son is 14, and he said, “What would you be doing if you weren’t fundraising? If you weren’t trying to do this?” Because every morning, it’s interviews. Every morning, it’s videos. And I said, “Nothing.” But every time there’s a need, I try to be the guy that steps up. When we had the fires, I’m trying to get out there and feed the evacuees. That was the first thing that happened when the pandemic happened. I wrote my contacts and contacts in the California state government, the president, the governor. I said, “Hey, I got a 48-foot-long commercial restaurant on wheels that I can feed 5,000 people a day out of. You tell me where you need me. I’m ready to go.”

Has giving back always been something that’s been important to you?

Yeah, that’s the way I was raised, that you always help your community and you always help people that need help, and you participate. You got to be an active member. I mean, I got to be honest, I feel so blessed to have the life that I have and to be raised the way I was raised and to have the opportunities that I had. It’s not even a question. Matter of fact, we joke about it in my family, about when will I turn off the restaurants and the TV shows and then just go into full philanthropy. If it ever got to happen, that would be awesome, because there’s a lot of people that have a lot of needs.

And I’m not into people that aren’t willing to help themselves. That’s not my thing. I’m not into handouts. There’s a lot of people that need support, need the fuel or need the ideas, or just need the recognition to get themselves going. It’s hard, being dead stopped, to get up a big hill, and if you can be the person there to give them that help…sheesh. I can tell you story after story of people that have made it with just a little bit of support.

Here’s what I say to all my friends that are power players that have the chance to move the needle: I play my instrument and band. I’m not the band. I’m a part of the band. Utilize me. I’ve had several friends of mine make large contributions to charities based upon me supporting and supplying something for something. For instance, coming to cook for a large event or appearing at a large event or hosting an event. And I love to collaborate with people that are trying to move the needle, and I can do my part in it.

How can our readers help?

The best question of the day. Well, as I said to one of my very wealthy friends in Texas, I said, “I know you’re getting asked by a million people for help, and I know you have things that are near and dear to your heart. If this is near and dear to your heart, please help. And regardless [of whether] this is near and dear to your heart, would you please help send it to people that it may be near and dear to?” Because it only takes another 85 people with it really near and dear to their hearts to write that $1 million check, to get that 100 million bucks to where we can really right the ship on this situation. So, send it to people that you know and people that can make an influence, and that’s it. Sharing the message is the big thing, because when it comes from somebody that has recommended…I can’t even tell you how many times that I had no clue that something was going on, and, “Wait a second. They’re doing what? Oh, I’m in.” You know? My kid’s school was trying to start a culinary program for the middle school. And someone said, “Yeah, they’re trying to do this, but they need money to write the grant.” I said, “How much? I’ll give them the money.” They wrote the grant, and got the $450,000, and started one of the first culinary middle school programs in the state. Amen. I wouldn’t have known about it if someone didn’t throw it to me. So, throw it to them. Pass it out to your friends. Go to your data bank. Ask your assistant. Do whatever you can. We’ll take anybody and everybody—$10 and up.

So, how could people donate to the fund if they’re interested?

Two ways. One, if they got big numbers, they want to call me and make sure they know where it goes. But the easiest way is to go to rerf.us, our Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, and it is just point-blank easy to do right there: Here’s where you donate. And it’s also the same website where people go to sign up for their $500 grants.

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