How Guy Fieri Went From Flavortown to Feeding Frontline Workers
Fieri helped raise more than $22 million for restaurant workers through the Restaurant Employee Relief Fund.
Most people know Guy Fieri for the hair, the backward sunglasses and his food catchphrases ("That just kung fu'd my palate, dude!"). But in the past four years, crisis after crisis has shown another side of the Food Network's most recognizable star: a celebrity chef working tirelessly to feed first responders and out-of-work restaurant staff.
During the devastating California fires of 2017, when Fieri was forced to flee from his Santa Rosa home, he brought his barbecue rig to a nearby evacuation center to smoke pork butts for emergency crews and fellow evacuees. The fires have returned to Northern California every year since, as has Fieri, bringing with him a growing setup that includes two trailers and a 48-foot mobile kitchen. In October 2020, hundreds of sweaty, soot-stained firefighters took a break from the front lines for meatball sandwiches and selfies with the chef at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. "Guy has been instrumental in sharing his support for those responding to the fires," says Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal for the Santa Rosa Fire Department. "Firefighters are truly grateful for Guy."
Just six months before, when COVID-19 restrictions shuttered restaurants, Fieri-who himself owns 85 eateries in the U.S. and abroad-says he immediately knew the effects on the industry would be catastrophic. Food in walk-in refrigerators would spoil. Staff would be laid off. Bills wouldn't get paid. That March and April, a reported 5.9 million restaurant workers, or half the industry, lost their jobs-with ripples of that loss spreading up the supply chain.
So the Mayor of Flavortown sent 43 personal videos to the CEOs of companies like Pepsi and Uber Eats to raise money. "Restaurants have always been there for you," he told them. "Let's step up and help restaurants." He got $21.5 million, and the National Restaurant Association coordinated the distribution of $500 checks to 43,000 workers. Fieri also co-directed and executive-produced a documentary called Restaurant Hustle 2020, which aired on the Food Network in December, to raise awareness about the crisis, and he continues to raise relief money for bar and restaurant owners. "Mom and pop restaurants are really the fabric of a community," Fieri says. "It was critical to share with people how much we need them, share how much we can help them and share how much they help us."
His passion for aiding others isn't surprising, perhaps, when you consider that in 14 years of hosting Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Fieri has championed the food at 1,500 pancake houses, taco trucks and burger joints across the country. "He's a gift to small restaurants like us because we don't have the ability to project like he can. That has definitely been a big thing," says Mike Semandiris, owner of Mike's Chili Parlorin Seattle, who still sees new customers every time his 2008 episode re-airs. "Guy helped expand our business to people we would never have been touching otherwise. He loves food, he loves small businesses, and he loves the traditions and the people who run these places."
This article first appeared in EatingWell, July/August 2021.