Web Exclusive | May 2011 | By Daniel P. Smith

The Help After the Storm

In the wake of the deadly tornado outbreak, Alabama restaurants are playing a role in the recovery efforts.

Captain D's hands out food to residents and first responders in Alabama.
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Foodservice operations across the South, particularly in Alabama, are lending to the relief efforts of one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history.

As clean-up crews and victims work to sort through the devastation caused by the vicious storm two weeks ago, many restaurant operators are supporting them with free food and pledges to raise money as relief efforts continue.

The day after the storm, the Captain D’s Mobile Kitchen rolled into Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to serve 650 people over four hours. In the following three days, the mobile unit fed 5,800 first responders, National Guard members, relief workers, and residents.

“In times of need, family pulls together, and this was a time of need,” says Tim O’Leary, director of Atlanta operations for Captain D’s, who has been on the frontlines since the mobile kitchen’s arrival in Tuscaloosa.

O’Leary says food was often going out of the truck’s front and back, as relief workers and community groups picked up food for off-site distribution. Managers and crewmembers from Captain D’s outlets throughout the South also descended upon Tuscaloosa to offer help and additional staffing.

“Though it hurts to see the destruction that the storm has caused, it warms the heart to see how people have pulled together,” O’Leary says.

On the morning of April 27, storms ripped through the Southern U.S., punishing communities with beating rain, high winds, and a record 173 tornadoes. By nightfall, more than 1 million residents of northern Alabama were without power. Within two days of the storm, published reports put the death toll at about 300.

The storm’s wrath was most intense in Tuscaloosa, home to the University of Alabama and some 180,000 residents. A mile-wide tornado flattened the city with winds approaching 200 miles per hour.

On April 28, Keith Richards, owner of Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, a regional quick-service operation with seven Alabama locations, awoke to horrifying images of the storm’s wrath. He phoned his stores and instructed them to ready food before corralling his father and eight-year-old son into his pick-up truck. Soon after, Richards went to Birmingham and handed out food to anyone walking down the street.

“It looked like a horror film … people walking around like zombies,” Richards says.

The following day, Richards returned once again to serve Greek salads, grilled chicken, rice, and sweet tea to victims and relief workers in the area. Over the two days, he says, he fed the Taziki’s staples to about 600 residents and first responders.

In three days, the Captain D's mobile unit fed 5,800 first responders, National Guard members, relief workers, and residents.

“People still have to eat and I knew we had to do something,” Richards says, adding that his Birmingham restaurants—among the fortunate few with power—were “out-of-control busy” following the storm.

One storm photo picked up by national media outlets showed a tornado swirling over a Jack’s restaurant in Cullman, Alabama. Among the region’s most recognizable names, Jack’s restaurants in northern Alabama were hard hit by the storm.

“Where there were tornadoes, there was a Jack’s,” says Jack’s marketing director Pam Measel.

Many Jack’s units were without power for hours, others for days. More critically, two Tuscaloosa store employees remained missing at time of press, leaving coworkers and Jack’s corporate office to hope the area’s spotty communications explained the workers’ absence.

“I don’t know how long it will take for things to get back to normal,” Measel says.

When normalcy does return, Jack’s will put its efforts into fundraising for American Red Cross and Salvation Army relief efforts, she says. The Birmingham-based chain aims to raise upward of $250,000.

“Our customers immediately began asking how they could help,” Measel says. “We’ll get the Jack’s army mobilized behind us and play a role in recovery.”

Just last week, the Alabama Restaurant Association and the Alabama Hospitality Association announced that hotels and restaurants across the state had pledged to assist victims by offering their resources free or at significantly discounted rates. Alabama Restaurant Association chairman Fred Gustin says restaurants across the state plan to ensure no one goes unfed, a nod to the cooperative spirit that has blanketed Alabama in the days following the storm.

“Whether it’s providing meals for the courageous first responders selflessly serving their fellow Alabamians or ensuring victims of this nightmare don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from, restaurants across the state are committed to doing our part to help our neighbors rebuild their lives, families, and communities,” Gustin says.

To contribute to the American Red Cross’ efforts in Alabama and across the South, please visit www.redcross.org.