A community of supporters bolsters South Florida hospitality industry

Jesus De La Torre, pictured, and wife and FIU alumna Heather De La Torre, owners of Jr's Gourmet Burgers, received support from the SOBEWFF® & Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Fund.

This story was originally published on FIU News.

For alumna Heather De La Torre and her husband Jesus, owners of Jr’s Gourmet Burgers in Miami Springs, business is a family affair. The “mom-and-pop” restaurant celebrates its 10-year anniversary this year, and the couple thinks of their small, close-knit staff as kin.

But, like many restaurants nationwide, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt Jr’s a tough blow.

“Our business is about 90 percent eat-in, in the dining room, so this whole thing has affected us a lot. We’ve lost a lot of business,” said Heather, who is also a special education teacher and a two-time graduate of the School of Education and Human Development.

When the pandemic struck, the De La Torres had to make a difficult decision: They closed Jr’s for two weeks to prepare to accommodate the dining restrictions put in place by the state and county to quell the spread of COVID-19.

But thanks to a grant from the SOBEWFF® & Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Relief Fund, the De La Torres were able to pay their employees throughout the closure, for which, Heather says, they are truly grateful.

“We were ecstatic to be able to keep providing for our employees. When you have a business and you employ people, you feel a sense of responsibility for their livelihoods. It’s not just us trying to keep the business open – these people are depending on us,” Heather said.

In March, the FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management teamed up with the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival to establish the relief fund, which helps pay employees at independently owned restaurants and bars struggling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is supported by contributions from the Festival, the Chaplin School, and now, many members of the community, as well.

Their collective efforts have raised more than $1.6 million and helped more than 500 restaurants and bars in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. 

Industry leaders and philanthropists answer the call

Among the first to answer FIU and the Festival’s call to aid the suffering industry were longtime FIU supporters Badia Spices and Bacardi North America.

“It’s an honor for us at Badia Spices to contribute to our brothers and sisters in the restaurant community. We know how hard it is to start a business, the long hours and sacrifices one must make. Wishing you all a new beginning very soon. We are with you,” said the Badia Spices President Pepe Badia.

Bacardi North America President Pete Carr said the company is “proud to support FIU’s efforts to give back to the hospitality industry and hope that this fund offers the financial relief and resources needed to help our local restaurants and bars reopen.”

Carr added, “As a family-owned business for more than 158 years, giving back to our local communities has been part of the Bacardi story since inception. For us, love for our brands was built in the bars, and so now, it’s our turn to show bar teams some much-needed love as they navigate this crisis.”

Likewise, William D. Talbert III, CDME, president and CEO of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said his organization is proud to give back to the community in this way.

“[This fund] is providing critically needed financial relief to the hospitality industry, the economic backbone of our tourism economy, which has been hit particularly hard during this unprecedented time,” Talbert said. “The FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management is an integral part of our community, providing invaluable educational opportunities and a continuous pipeline of talent directly to our hospitality industry. And as one of our most iconic annual events, the SOBEWFF® celebrates Miami’s standing as true culinary destination. The partnership between the event and the program is synergistic and exemplifies what truly makes Miami shine.”

In addition to Heather’s being an FIU alumna, Jr’s is a regular at the Festival. The restaurant even won the Festival’s Heineken Light Burger Bash presented by Schweid and Sons in 2017. So to have two organizations that mean so much to the couple lend a hand in their time of need was serendipitous.

“It’s like both of our worlds collided. It was a twist of fate that FIU and the Festival were able to come together and help us provide for our families. It made me proud to be an FIU alum, and proud that we participate in the Festival every year,” Heather said.

Organizations and individuals alike are stepping up in significant ways. Philanthropist and mother of three Arlene Chaplin believes in the value of enjoying a meal with family. It’s why she, too, pledged support for the Hospitality Industry Relief Fund.

“I believe in the experience of dining out, and the importance of interacting with family and friends in these social settings gives us so much enjoyment and great memories, too. I wanted to support our community and the hospitality industry, who have been so affected by COVID-19,” Chaplin said.

“[I] hope that we can, and will, make great memories together safely in the very near future,” she added.

With individuals like Chaplin and organizations like Bacardi and the Visitors Bureau involved – and the contributions of unique, Festival-led fundraisers like bake sales – the relief fund has become a complete community effort to bolster local establishments during the pandemic.

Looking forward

Jr’s reopened for limited dine-in accommodations on June 1, and though the road ahead will not be easy, the De La Torres try to remain optimistic.

“We continue to just do the best we can and follow all the guidelines,” Heather said. “We are looking forward to getting back to normal, even if it’s a new normal, so we can stay open and keep our little family going.”

Ivonne Amor contributed to this story.