Relief Kitchen Offers Free Meals, Hope to Touring Professionals Across the U.S.

When thousands of live events were canceled and venues shut down for the unforeseeable future following the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of touring professionals—bus and truck drivers, lighting, merchandise and venue personnel, roadies, video technicians, and many others—were also left out of a job, without an income and few resources to help them cope, much less put food on the table. 

In December of 2020, the Touring Professionals Alliance (TPA), a non-profit offering aid to crews and individuals working behind the scenes in live music, partnered with The LEE Initiative, which works to feed and employ those out of work restaurant employees, to address the unprecedented issues facing touring professionals following COVID by forming the Touring Professionals Relief Kitchen (TPRK).

Every Tuesday and Thursday, the TPRK serves hundreds of free meals to touring professionals in Los Angeles, Nashville, Chicago, and New York, directly from the kitchens of partner restaurants, featuring some of the top chefs in the industry.

Participating restaurants and chefs include Chicago’s Stephanie Izard of The Girl and the Goat and Grant Achatz of Roister Restaurant; Sqirl and chef Jessica Koslow and Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo of Petit Trois Le Valley in Los Angeles; Sean Brock of Audrey and Maneet Chauhan of Chaatable in Nashville; and Billy Durney with New York’s Industry City Space and Red Rooster under chef Marcus Samuelsson.

“Touring Professionals Alliance is steadfastly focused on providing aid to the thousands of individuals who work behind the scenes in live music touring who have been severely impacted by the pandemic,” says Jerome Crooks, TPA co-founder and tour manager for Nine Inch Nails, TOOL, and Beastie Boys. “We are grateful to The LEE Initiative for the partnership in providing meals to those in our industry in need.” 

To date, The LEE Initiative, founded by Chef Edward Lee and Lindsey Ofcacek, has served more than one million meals for individuals within the restaurant and music industries since March 2020.

“Food and music has always had such a strong connection and we wanted to bring awareness to the struggle of concert workers in addition to providing them great meals,” says Lee. “People have already lost so much and are at risk of losing more and we want to help ease their burden in whatever way we can. This is what it means to say we are all in this together. We are proud to have each other’s backs.”

When first approached by Lee, Maneet Chauhan, chef and owner of Indian restaurant Chaatable, immediately wanted to be part of the TPRK’s initiative.

“We are in the music city, and I’ve always been a strong believer that Nashville is a music city because of the audience, and that’s why it’s becoming a foodie city, because of the audience,” says Chauhan. “We have been in the trenches together, and it’s only right to do right by your family, and Nashville is my family.”

Chauhan adds, “People who set up concerts, from tour managers, lighting technicians, audio engineers, and more are out of a job because concerts won’t be back to normal until at least 2022, so we are doing what we can do to help and what we can do is cook.”

Back home in Louisville, Kentucky, tour manager Scotty Haulter started volunteering at a Lee Initiative relief kitchen last June, and from the point the TPA started talking about creating some form of food relief to touring professionals, the TPRK was up and running within three weeks of initial discussions.

Using a more grassroots approach, the TPA updates its database of touring professionals weekly to distribute email blasts with information on relief kitchens and other programs. Haulter says that they hope to expand the program to additional cities throughout the year. “Those four cities aren’t the only cities where people are in need, so we don’t see an end to this,” says Haulter. “Within the touring professional world, we’re used to problem solving, and we’ve always been the ones to fix the problems, but when hundreds of thousands of people have been out of work since March, at no fault of their own, they find themselves on the other side of this.”

Tour manager, Tim “Gooch” Lougee, says that many of these professionals don’t fall into a specific financial bracket to receive government support, some have taken on new, unrelated jobs, while others have no income at all. “Some of these people have been doing this job for 20 or 30 years, and it’s their profession,” says Lougee. “They don’t have group health insurance. They don’t have retirement plans. They make $75,000 to $100,000 a year and don’t have access to what corporate America has structured to take care of employees in dire times.”

Lougee adds, “One of the most important, basic human rights is to eat and have food. We live in the richest country on this globe, and we can’t feed our people. There’s something wrong there.”

The TPA, who help those in the touring community with everything from gift cards to buy presents for their children to helping pay gas and electric bills, is also working on expanding its mental health aid and substance abuse initiatives. The alliance has already partnered with the Country Music Association, Music Health Alliance, SIMS Foundation, Never Famous, and Be An Arts Hero.

Artists including Willie Nelson, Chuck D, Slash, Duff McKagan, Jakob Dylan, Tom Morello, Disturbed’s David Draiman, and St. Paul & The Broken Bones, have been involved in helping build awareness around the program.

“Everything is based around taking care of our people—helping them pay their rent, or pay their bills, or pay their medical bills,” says Lougee. “Some are having medical issues and can’t afford to pay $2,000 a month being out of a job for 11 months, while some just don’t get health insurance and pray that nothing happens.”

Since many within the live event industry don’t have the safety net of the auto, airline or other corporate industries that get more government assistance, the TPA is working on building a stronger voice in government to establish the industry as a legitimate one.

“Billions of dollars were lost this year since business shut down,” says Lougee. “When something happens, whether there’s an earthquake or tornado or fires, there’s usually a relief concert. Everyone calls on musicians and people that work in the industry to put together a show and write songs to save the world, but no one has come together and said ‘let’s get behind the musicians. Let’s get behind the tour crews. Let’s put this together and give these guys some work and help raise awareness.’”

Many touring professionals who have been working for decades may never return to their previous roles once live events start up again, Lougee says, because they’ve found more stable ways to support their families.

“Who’s to say another massive virus doesn’t come out, and we have to shut everything down again,” says Lougee. “Then everybody left their stable jobs to come back to this. It’s hard having a conversation with somebody in our business that was doing fairly well and bought a house years ago and have to tell their children that Santa Claus isn’t coming, or a family saying ‘I can’t feed my kids.’”

Visiting the Nashville kitchens weekly, Haulter says he’s overwhelmed by the gratitude from people participating in the program. “It’s just heartwarming to see just how gracious and thankful people are,” says Haulter. “It’s amazing.”

Lougee says even the simple act of having a conversation with a fellow touring professional at the kitchen who relates to similar hardships, mentally helps those who have felt lost throughout the past year.

“We’re encouraging people to reach out to us if they need somebody like-minded in their town to talk to, or other resources,” says Lougee. “If you don’t want to go into rehab and just need somebody to talk to or hang out with, we’ll give you a person to call. Some folks in Nashville have said ‘I didn’t understand how much I needed this to save my life.’” 

Haulter says volunteering has even helped him cope with being out of work this past year. “Volunteering saved my whole mental state,” shares Haulter. “For three days a week, I have a gig, and I’m helping people, and it really is therapeutic for me. Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t doing this over the past year.”

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