How the LEE Initiative and Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice are Creating a More Diverse and Equitable Restaurant Community

Feb 07, 2023

The LEE Initiative is one of 22 nonprofits to receive an inaugural Impact Grant from, the company’s philanthropic arm, as a part of its Pledge 1% commitment. The LEE Initiative partners with Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice to provide financial and educational support to Black-owned food businesses across the country. The Spotlight Series highlights outstanding organizations dedicated to enriching the food experience for all. 

The LEE (Let’s Empower Employment) Initiative is redefining what it means to give back by genuinely impacting local communities. Based in Louisville, KY, the LEE Initiative was founded in 2018 by Lindsey Ofcacek and James Beard award-winning Chef Edward Lee after they saw a need for a more diverse, compassionate, sustainable, and equitable restaurant industry.

Since then, the team has created programs furthering its core beliefs, including a partnership with Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice (SRRJ). We sat down with SRRJ co-founder Cheryl Day to learn more about the collaboration and some of the challenges they’re witnessing in the industry.  

It all started with a bake sale.

Baker and author Cheryl Day is known for her incredible pastries and sweets. Whether it’s a boldly rich and spiced sweet potato pie or a flaky biscuit, her recipes bring together generations of tradition to a new audience. A pie recipe, as simple as it may be, can be recreated and crafted, passed down, and take on a life of its own. But a recipe holds the instructions for something much bigger than feeding hungry mouths, creating a world where everybody gets a fair slice. 

Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the social unrest that followed that summer, baker and author Cheryl Day and industry friends Sarah O’Brien, Lisa Donovan, and Anne Quatrano wanted to do something to support the Black community, so they decided to pool their resources together and have a bake sale of sorts.

“I always say bakers are the sweetest people in the world, and we always think that if we do a bake sale, we can raise money, and then we can give it all away, so that’s kind of how it started,” Day said.  

Cheryl Day

Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice and the LEE Initiative join forces.

Support from other chefs and the restaurant community poured in at a time when restaurants struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some contributed food, others offered a percentage of their sales, and ultimately the group raised about $100,000 from the bake sale, which it donated to the nonprofit Color of Change.

Realizing the change that a few bakers could make, the group formed the Southern Restaurants for Racial Justice to bring more equity in the restaurant space, partnering with the LEE Initiative and Heinz to award over $2 million in grants to Black-owned food businesses across the country. The grants have ranged from emergency relief to helping finance Black-owned businesses that cannot secure funding. 

“I know firsthand, as a Black woman-owned business, how difficult it is to get funds,” Day said. “A lot of Black-owned restaurants don’t even know where to go to get funding…and our ability to create this fund specifically for black-owned restaurants has just been really empowering.”  

Building a Recipe for Success.

Another problem that SRRJ sees, especially within legacy businesses, is operating in a new digital era where infrastructure, marketing, and brand exposure are essential to a restaurant’s success. “They’re just kind of making good food and doing things the old-fashioned way,” Day pointed to the mentorship and education series the nonprofit started to help teach legacy businesses new ways of operating to create a sustainable business with growth opportunities. 

“They need more mentorship. They need more infrastructure of knowing what they should be doing, and a lot of folks are really interested in learning,” Day said.

As for newer businesses, which may be more technologically savvy, some need help to get customers in the door. “I hate to say it. But there was a period of time where people were really interested in supporting Black-owned restaurants, and it seems to be kind of fading a little bit,” said Day, who hopes to cultivate a more diverse community of restaurant goers. “I want everybody to go to Black-owned restaurants,” she quipped. 

And importantly, Day points out that it isn’t just about writing people checks and hoping for the best. What makes a true impact in a food community is mentorship, education, and highlighting great work from the community.

She lights up and raves as she recalls a jerk qual with crispy rice that she had recently at the Garage at Victory North, a Savannah restaurant run by Executive Chef Todd Harris. She smiles widely, speaking about the young Black chef she recently discovered and is currently mentoring. “I’m kinda taking him under my wing. I’m being his auntie,” she said as she talked about how she’s trying to use her platform to help bring others exposure. 

Ultimately, it comes back to the community. That’s what makes food and restaurants such a powerful force. They can truly change a community for the better, and that’s an investment we should all strive to support. 

When a restaurant closes, especially from a community with a systemic disadvantage, it isn’t just bad for the business owner. It’s detrimental to the community. People lose their jobs and opportunities, and a gathering place — where people come together to talk, laugh, and reminisce over the food that they love and have eaten for generations. If we lose legacy restaurants in Black communities or a new opportunity never comes to fruition, that’s a loss of culture and history — a loss of American history.

Cheryl Day is a co-founder of SRRJ and owner/operator of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia, which she started in 2002 with her husband, Griff. Her latest cookbook, “Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking,” includes more than 200 recipes honoring traditions of Southern Baking, including Day’s great-great-grandmother Hannah Queen Grubbs, an enslaved pastry chef. You can follow her on Instagram.

Lindsey Ofcacek and Chef Edward Lee of the LEE Initiative work together at Lee’s restaurant, 610 Magnolia, in Louisville, Kentucky, where Ofcacek runs its award-winning wine program. The LEE Initiative also supports a Restaurant Workers Relief Program, Women Culinary and Spirits Program, Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, and a Culinary Education Program.

SRRJ co-founders Lisa Donovan is a James Beard award-winning writer, as well as a pastry chef. Sarah O’Brien is a James Beard semifinalist, owner and operator of Little Tart Bakeshop in Atlanta. And Anne Quatrano is a James Beard award-winning chef and author, owner of Star Provisions, chef/owner of Bacchanalia, and W.H. Stiles Fish Camp. 

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