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Guy Fieri Raised $21.5 Million For Struggling Restaurant Workers, And It's A Major Lesson For Brands

Guy Fieri bypassed the media to do a great thing for his struggling colleagues in the restaurant industry, and it's a great lesson for brands.

Guy Fieri, often the butt of jokes in the culinary world, has emerged as a savior after raising $21.5 million in seven weeks to support unemployed restaurant workers during the pandemic. 

The massive, direct act of charity has won the Food Network star a showering of media praise. It also includes an important lesson for brands to learn.

The Food Network star’s platinum hair, flame-emblazoned shirts, and love of bold, macho flavors doesn’t quite embody the subtlety most Americans look for in a fine-dining chef. And he’s been mocked for it, sometimes savagely

But the Mayor of Flavortown has never sold himself as a purveyor of haute cuisine. Instead his brand focuses around small-town joints and simple pleasures: dripping barbecue sandwiches, deep-fried cheese and hunks of grilled meat.

So when the pandemic shuttered restaurants in March, rank-and-file workers took the brunt of the economic shutdown. So far, more than 100,000 restaurants have shuttered during the pandemic. Even nine months later, states and cities have kept indoor restaurant dining down to a minimum to limit the spread of the pandemic. 

When Fieri saw the country’s diners, drive-ins, and dives he so famously reviews on Food Network taking a hit, he stepped in. With the help of big brands like PepsiCo and Uber, Fieri’s Restaurant Employee Relief Fund put together $500 grants for 43,000 restaurant workers across the country. 

It turns out the pandemic has made Fieri more relevant than ever. His new documentary, “Restaurant Hustle 2020,” will launch this month and showcase the stories of hard-working Americans. 

The Lesson For Brands

Consider how Fieri’s grants differ from other charitable initiatives. Fieri could have donated money to research a cure for COVID-19, and perhaps moved the needle on that important cause just a little. Instead, he took direct action to address the financial stress on his industry colleagues. 

Brands give to charity all the time, but it’s generally boring. Fieri built his brand around spicing up everyday foods with a little bit of bold flavor (it’s called donkey sauce). In granting 43,000 workers $500, he has again connected directly with his audience, completely bypassing the need for media outreach. After Fieri’s organization issued the grants, media organizations found him. 

This strategy looks especially smart for Fieri, who has not always received rave reviews. 

Fieri opened a restaurant in New York City in 2012. The city that never keeps its opinions to itself basically laughed him out of town. It closed in 2018 after scathing reviews

But Fieri wasn’t deterred, he continued with his national operation, offering Americans fun, festive food at the spots they go to enjoy themselves. Fieri has restaurants in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and aboard Carnival Cruise lines.  

Fieri’s story demonstrates the value of never turning your nose up at customer preferences and remaining genuine. Most of America doesn’t care what New York City food critics think, they care about eating good food they can enjoy. They care about people who care about them.