MIAMI BEACH (AP) — Some of the biggest celebrity chefs are in Miami this weekend for the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival, including Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and Martha Stewart. But behind the glamour and private dinners that can sell for as much as $500 a ticket, the festival has been quietly working behind the scenes to help restaurants struggling during the pandemic.
Last year’s event, which fed more than 65,000 people at more than 100 events, was held just weeks before the COVID lockdown. Miami has long been a foodie town with hundreds of local chefs and restaurants contributing to the massive food festival.
As restaurants laid of staff and closed up shop, festival creator Lee Brian Schrager jumped into action to help his cooks and servers. The festival partnered with Florida International University’s Chaplin School Hospitality to create a relief fund raising $1.6 million that went directly to unemployed cooks, servers, dishwashers and other staff at over 500 restaurants and bars across South Florida.
Tazquiza, a popular Miami taco spot known for its homemade masa, furloughed roughly 90 employees when the pandemic first hit, shuttering all three locations.
“It’s heartbreaking. You work with all these people daily and to tell someone, ‘I’m so sorry, but all our stores are closing,'” said operations manager Christine Martinez.
The restaurant received two rounds of relief funding from the festival, giving $1,000 to nearly all its laid-off employees.
“A lot of hospitality workers live and breathe sometimes paycheck to paycheck and the cost of living in Miami is so astronomical,” she said. “That helped the restaurant keep the employees with roof over their heads and food for their kids. That gave us a lot of motivation to keep going.”
Schrager alone raised more than $100,00 from the front porch of his Coral Gables home, hosting a series of drive-thru bake sales last year, with gourmet donations from famed pastry chefs including Hedy Goldsmith and Zak the Baker.
But he wanted to do more for smaller culinary vendors. In January, the festival partnered with local Miami officials who oversee touristy Lincoln Road to create a new outdoor, monthly market to spotlight local artisans.
“We want this market to serve as a platform that helps re-energize and reinvigorate the local culinary community,” Schrager said.
This year’s festival, kicked off Thursday night with a poolside party at the Fontainebleau Hotel hosted by Martha Stewart and a surprise performance by The Chainsmokers. Bobby Flay was scheduled to host the popular burger bash on Friday night.
The festival, which runs through Sunday, was postponed for several months due to COVID and is now under new restrictions, including half capacity at the big-name events. Normally 3,000 tickets would be sold for Guy Fieri’s popular BBQ and champagne dinner Saturday night, but that number was cut in half. All events except for the wine series will now take place outdoors, along with temperature checks and mask requirements.