Alex Kuk couldn't stop smiling when the mailman dropped off his mail. In the stack of letters and bills addressed to his restaurant, Temple Street Eatery in Fort Lauderdale, was a ray of hope in the form of a check from FIU.
"Literally, I think we were just jumping up and down," said Kuk, who opened the Asian American restaurant in 2014 with business partner Diego Ng.
With restaurants all around them closing up or firing and laying off employees and their own business down by 70 percent, the FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management School alumni have been doing everything they can to keep their doors open to the community and to pay their employees. A few weeks ago, they applied for the SOBEWFF® & FIU Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Relief Fund.
So did Jesus de la Torre of Jrs. Gourmet Burgers in Miami Springs, whose "That Guy's Burger" filled with Angus beef and a hint of guava and cheese won the People's Choice Award at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival's Burger Bash back in 2017.
"Our staff is so grateful for the grant from the industry relief fund," Torre said, while adjusting his face mask. "Many of my employees have been able to use that money to pay their bills, fix their cars and pay for medical expenses that they need," he added.
Torre, Kuk and Ng are among the first group of independently owned restaurant and bar owners in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to receive checks from the FIU Foundation to put cash directly into the hands of their cooks, servers and staff.
Grants of up to $15,000 are being provided to those businesses that have had to temporarily cease operations or lay off employees due to locally mandated closure orders. Up to $500 per employee is than paid by the business owner directly to their staff member.
College of Business alumna Phet Phanitdasack '99 of Bangkok City and Ruson Japanese Restaurant in Kendall is among the grant recipients.
"We have been in business for 33 years and have never had to close our doors or lay anyone off," she said, while sharing the good news about the award with her manager, Tang Douangdara. "These funds are going directly to our employees, so we couldn't be more grateful."
"As an alumnus of FIU, I feel very proud and thankful that they are helping contribute to our industry and the community and giving us a ray of sunshine during this horrible time," said Matthew "Kush" Kuscher of Kush Hospitality Group. He has seven restaurants, including the popular Kush in Wynwood, Lokal in Coconut Grove and Stephen's Delicatessen in Hialeah; Only two have remained open during COVID-19.
The idea for the fund started just days after social distancing orders went into effect in parts of South Florida forcing many food and beverage owners to shut their doors or severely limit business by offering only delivery or take-out.
Instead of sitting back, the fund was launched with $1 million, including a founding donation of $500,000 by the Chaplin School, as well as another $500,000 from school partners Bacardi USA and Badia Spices. Other big name hospitality industry leaders like Shaw-Ross International Importers, Voli 305 Vodka, the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, Miami's Downtown Development Authority and individuals, like Emilio and Gloria Estefan, provided additional financial support totaling close to $1.4 million.
"More than 1,200 FIU students run the festival every year and proceeds normally would have gone to help us with operating costs and scholarships," said Michael Cheng, Chaplin School dean. "Together with Festival founder and executive director Lee Brian Schrager, we wanted to show our students we can be part of the solution and put that money to use immediately to support those who serve us in our hospitality industry and directly into the hands of employees."
The success of the fund has been due in large part to rapid action. Just five days after the idea emerged, a website was launched, a committee was formed to review applications daily and within weeks, checks went in the mail and employees were paid.
"This fund is a historic example of how collaboration with a cause in mind can work to swiftly benefit those in need. The hospitality and restaurant industry is vital to the South Florida community, and we are proud to have worked alongside our partners at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival® to help employees of area restaurants and bars,” said Howard Lipman, senior vice president of University Advancement and CEO of the FIU Foundation.
"We've been able to pay over 70 employees. People who have not received checks for over three weeks," said Rafael Wong, owner of Los Ranchos Restaurant, which is just down the street from FIU's main campus and a fixture in the community for the last 39 years.
Wong was all smiles under his face mask, as he handed a check to employee Tiffany Canales.
"We feel blessed. It's something unexpected and at least with these tough times, you really just look for blessings and miracles to happen and that's what it felt like," said Canales.
Back in Fort Lauderdale, Alex Kuk couldn't agree more and sums it all up: "The best words are to say we're grateful."
To date, 350 independently owned restaurants and bars have received more than $1.2 million in relief funds. To donate to the fund, please text FIUSOBEWFF to 41444 or visit the FIU Chaplin School website.