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People of the Year 2020: Kevin Fink & Tavel Bristol-Joseph

By February, 2020 was shaping up to be the year for best friends Kevin Fink and Tavel Bristol-Joseph, co-owners and chefs of 3-month-old Hestia. Fink was nominated by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef: Texas, and Food & Wine listed Bristol-Joseph as a Best New Chef (one of only a few pastry chefs to earn the accolade). Then, all of Austin’s restaurants closed due to COVID-19.

Ironically, their profession is the very thing that helped Fink and Bristol-Joseph navigate the unenviable challenge of keeping five eateries afloat, all while continuing to provide for the 120 furloughed employees they consider extended family.

“Running a kitchen really prepares you for constant change and stress,” says Fink. “It gives you the ability to realize that tomorrow is a chance for a fresh start.”

Bristol-Joseph, who grew up under challenging circumstances in Guyana, one of South America’s most impoverished countries, was prepared in other ways for this year’s challenges: “I’ve learned to adapt quickly to adversity,” he says. “When you start to accept a situation, you can make better decisions.”

During the pandemic, the partners, which include Fink’s wife, Alicynn, and Rand Egbert, converted Hestia and Emmer & Rye to curbside takeout and delivery. The pivot enabled the group to keep 30 salaried employees employed while providing ongoing health coverage to all staff. They were also able to funnel partial proceeds into an employee emergency fund and continue supporting their local farmer network by selling dry goods and produce.

“We made a lot of decisions about how to best be there for people, and there was never any question that our team’s welfare was our priority along with our businesses,” says Fink. “I’m proud of that.”

By April, the restaurateurs were able to refocus on their other core value—community. Investing their own money, they launched an initiative to prepare, package and deliver meals to thousands of Austin health care workers. Donations kept the program running through the worst of the crisis; in May, they partnered with the Austin Independent School District to provide lunches to parents and caregivers teaching their children from home.

“Our mission has never been to just get past a challenge,” says Bristol-Joseph. “We want to effect change by pushing hard and making an impact—within our industry and community.” In 2019, for example, the group raised $250,000 for various charities, including AISD and Austin Parks Foundation. Pre-pandemic, they were working to create a board to help expand philanthropic programming and scholarships for all staff to intern abroad. “We’re very goal-oriented and big on investing in our team,” says Fink. “You can’t hold people back because you’re afraid of losing them.”

After the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, Bristol-Joseph found himself thrust into the national spotlight as journalists clamored for his opinion on everything from racial inequality within the industry to his experiences as a Black man in America. His response to the attention is characteristically candid.

“I’m a strong believer that everything happens for a reason. I’ve always felt an obligation to be an example for Caribbean and African American kids, but if this had been a normal year, I’d have prioritized ways to capitalize on my award,” he says. “But now it’s about using this much larger platform I’ve been given. Restaurants are the number-one minority-owned business sector in the U.S., and I’m thinking, ‘How do I start scholarships, give back?’ I have a less selfish perspective and I’m more focused on helping young chefs.”

As the industry continues to struggle through the effects of the pandemic, Fink and Bristol-Joseph have led the charge to help restaurants get back on their feet. In July, the pair made national headlines for their efforts on behalf of the $120 billion RESTAURANTS Act, a bipartisan federal grant program proposed to Congress this summer. Fink was part of the leadership team for Texas: “We’ve been on calls with senators and state and federal representatives, championing our industry to give them a better idea of what independent restaurants are going through right now,” he says. “We plan to remain engaged on a national level. Sometimes, it’s hard to be compassionate without hearing someone’s story.”

The two men, who both say their relationship is more akin to a brotherhood, have also served as a sounding board and inspiration to national restaurateurs, sharing their struggles and the enterprises that have helped them weather months of uncertainty.

“While things aren’t back to normal, we’ve bucked the stage where we’re wallowing and grieving every day,” says Fink. “Now we’re focused on moving forward. I want to be able to look back at 2020 and say it was the impetus for great things.”

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