Restaurant Emergency Outreach
When fires came rushing down the mountain and into Gatlinburg on the evening of Nov. 28, more than 14,000 residents and tourists fled the city, while nearly 800 first responders flooded into town. Nearby Pigeon Forge and Sevierville suddenly had a lot of unexpected guests, many of them with nothing but the clothes on their back. Fortunately, Tennessee is called the Volunteer State for a reason, and local restaurants didn’t hesitate to step up. We had the opportunity to speak with some of the restaurateurs who helped out in a big way.
For Lizbeth Pineda and her husband Saul Martinez of Sevierville’s Pollo Loco Mexican Restaurant, their involvement with the victims of the fire came early and unexpectedly.
“I was trying to get out of here, and there was no way for us to get into the traffic. It was hardly moving,” says Pineda. “There was no way for us to get out of here, and I was pretty sure this place was going to burn down. The traffic was getting worse and worse, so we had to stay here.”
Because Pollo Loco is located on what became one of the main evacuation routes, Lizbeth and Saul quickly began encountering other evacuees stranded by the gridlocked traffic.
“We had a couple, a very old couple that was getting out of the car … and the guy was injured on his face. We went out and helped him in, and he told us that their house was burning down and they got out on time. They said that they didn’t have family here, so basically they were by themselves. It was a very sad situation, so we just helped them. We had another big family with a lot of kids. I made coffee for them, and then more people started coming in. I started cooking for them. It wasn’t business, just feeding them. Everybody was just very afraid.”
“We stayed from 4 p.m. until 7 in the morning. We slept on the floor. I told [Saul], let’s just stay and not try to get out, because this is the only place that people can reach, and that’s what we did.”
When the worst of the fire was over, the folks at Pollo Loco continued serving. “We went home about 7 in the morning, took a shower, and came back and stayed open Tuesday all day for firefighters and local police officers. That first day … [we didn’t] open for business, we just opened to help our local people, our community.”
“Today is for them, tomorrow for us. We were lucky that nothing happened to this place. We grew up here. Ninety percent of our customers, they’re local. We feel good that we helped who we could.”
Collecting for the Community
Another restaurant that stepped up when the community needed it most was Huck Finn’s Catfish in Pigeon Forge. The restaurant’s leaders quickly made the decision to help, before the full extent of the disaster was even known.
“A couple managers had been texting me literally in the middle of the night, and we just decided,” says owner Karen Moore. “We still don’t know at this point how bad it is, but we’re going to feed firefighters and we’re going to feed displaced people. We all had an early Tuesday morning and just got it going.”
Word got out quickly through social media and local news outlets that the restaurant was feeding emergency personnel and displaced families, leading management to have to make quick decisions to avoid running out of food.
“I put the word out on social media. We fed utility workers, because they were very involved, any kind of first responders, anybody displaced. We fed probably 50 or 60 displaced families, and then we actually closed the restaurant at 4 o’clock just to feed displaced families and any kind of first responders that had come in, because we were getting so busy I was afraid we were going to run out of food.”
In addition to feeding those who came to the restaurant, Karen and her staff took food to where it was needed.
“Tuesday night we fed the Pigeon Forge Fire Department. Wednesday night we fed the Gatlinburg [Fire Department] and took food to Gatlinburg-Pittman High School. Thursday we fed Pigeon Forge again.”
Once the extent of the damage and people affected became apparent, Moore decided to go a step beyond providing food.
“We were also taking donations. It started out literally as, ‘Bring what you can and leave it on our porch.’ That was Tuesday morning. Then the word got out and the news got ahold of it, and by Wednesday morning there was no room to walk on our porch. We had to rent a big 53-foot trailer, and had it delivered and left here so we would have room.”
“The very first day, my oldest son, I had given him my credit card, and my manager and him went to Walmart to get started with our donation thing we were going to do. They were buying all this stuff, and this elderly woman was in the parking lot and wanted to know what they were doing with all of that. They told [her], and this lady pulled a dollar out of her purse and said, ‘This is all I have; I don’t have a lot but I want you to take this dollar.’ I literally saw the best part of humanity. It’s just people helping people.”
Collier Restaurant Group, including Golden Corral, TGI Friday’s, Flapjack’s Pancake Cabin, Quaker Steak & Lube, and Corky’s Ribs & BBQ, also fed locals in need in the aftermath of the fire, as did BurgerFi in Sevierville, The Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Feud, and Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies worked to help during recovery efforts, feeding 200 to 300 emergency responders per day, as well as helping feed and rescue pets in areas hit hardest by the fire.
Operation BBQ Relief, a nonprofit organization that deploys cooking teams to areas hit by natural disasters, was also on hand to help feed evacuees and first responders. Together with country music superstar Zac Brown’s non-profit Zac Brown’s Southern Ground, the groups dished out more than 13,000 meals over three days.
“It was great to work with a team from Zac Brown’s Southern Ground to provide hot BBQ meals to those affected [by] the Chimney Tops 2 fire that devastated the Gatlinburg area,” says David Marks, Chief Operating Officer of Operation BBQ. “Thank you to everyone who helped support our efforts.”
In a great show of generosity, Dolly Parton, a native of Sevier County, established the My People Fund, which will provide a monthly stipend to families who lost their homes in the fire to help them get back on their feet. If you are looking for a way to offer assistance to the victims of the Gatlinburg fire, consider donating to the My People Fund or volunteering in person. MountainTough.org, which was set up by the local governments in the immediate aftermath of the fires, lists all the ways you can get involved.