2020 has been a year of unprecedented difficulty and transformation for the world, with the restaurant and bar community being especially hard hit. The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the entire food ecosystem from farmers and purveyors who suddenly lacked businesses to supply, to restaurants and bars being forced to lay off staff and close doors, to food banks with double the mouths to feed and fewer resources to do so. In addition to this, a historic social justice movement grew, fighting against police brutality, the inequality that pervades American society and hinders the Black community, and the systems that uphold white supremacy. But in the face of adversity, unsuspecting heroes emerged. This was a moment unlike any other for the hospitality industry to take matters into their own hands. So here at Thrillist, we couldn’t close out 2020 without taking a moment to look back and acknowledge the brave people who, despite their own personal setbacks this year, pivoted their lives to step up, go beyond, and make change.

While we can’t possibly honor the thousands of people who might be worthy of praise this year—from restaurants that stayed open to feed nearby health care workers to tireless food delivery people putting their lives at risk for months on end—these honorees are representative of the inspiring acts we saw all year long across micro communities and multiple fronts, including COVID relief, food insecurity, social justice and mental health/education. In order to put Heroes together, we sourced nominations from our curated group of industry-expert panelists (featured below), in addition to Thrillist readers, staff and contributors.
Nyesha Arrington
Chef, Los Angeles, CA
Natasha Case
CEO and Co-Founder, Coolhaus, Los Angeles, CA
Ghetto Gastro
Chefs and Cultural Ambassadors, Bronx, NY
Zwann Grays
Wine Director, Olmsted, Brooklyn, NY
Tahiirah Habibi
Sommelier and Founder, The Hue Society and The Roots Fund, Atlanta, GA
Brandon Jew
Chef/Owner, Mister Jiu’s, San Francisco, CA
Bricia Lopez
Co-Owner of Guelaguetza and Author, Los Angeles, CA
Preeti Mistry
Chef, Author, Activist, Oakland, CA
Shannon Mustipher
Spirits Guru and Author, "Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails," NYC
Danielle Nierenberg
President, Food Tank, NYC
Natasha Pickowicz
Pastry Chef and Founder of In Good Taste, NYC
Elizabeth Tilton
Founder and CEO, Oyster Sunday, New Orleans, LA
Falayn Ferrell, Warren Luckett, Derek Robinson
Managing Partners and Co-Founders, Black Restaurant Week, Houston, TX
COVID Support
COVID Support
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life for all of us, but these local heroes assembled to offer relief to those most affected by the deadly virus — from furloughed hospitality workers to healthcare professionals and beyond.
Maya-Camille Broussard
Chef/Owner, Justice of the Pies
John deBary & Alex Pemoulié
Co-Founders, deBary serves as Board President, Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation
Erik Bruner-Yang
Chef, Restaurateur, and Creator of The Power of 10 Initiative
Lenore Estrada
Executive Director, SF New Deal
Yin Chang & Moonlynn Tsai
Co-Founders, Heart of Dinner
Edward Lee & Lindsey Ofcacek
Co-Founders of The LEE Initiative
Nicole Marquis
Owner, Bar Bombón, HipCityVeg, and Charlie Was a Sinner
Brian Yazzie
Founder, Intertribal Foodways and Executive Chef, Gatherings Cafe
Justin McKibben
Founder and Engineering Lead, Send Chinatown Love
Irene Li
Co-Owner and Chef, Mei Mei
Julia Momose
Partner/Creative Director, Kumiko; Co-Founder, Cocktails for Hope
Rosey Sullivan
Founder, Undocumented Workers Fund Dallas
Sahil Rahman & Rahul Vinod
Co-Owners, Rasa
Jocelyn Tsaih
Artist and Founder, Save Our Chinatowns
Eric Rivera
Chef/Owner, Addo
Michael Lennox
Founder, ATL Family Meal
Eduard Seitan
Volunteer Pilot, Pilots N Paws and Partner at One Off Hospitality Group
Social Justice
Food Insecurity
Food Insecurity
COVID-19 and other natural disasters of 2020 had a devastating impact on food insecurity in the US (and around the world), these local heroes rallied to provide free meals, groceries, and/or agricultural solutions to help those in need.
Iman Alshehab
Chef and Co-Owner, Mera Kitchen Collective
Devin De Wulf
Founder, Feed the Second Line
Malik Ali, Kurt Evans, Gregory Headen, Stephanie Willis & Aziza Young
Co-Founders, Everybody Eats Philly
Oscar Diaz del Castillo & KP Sykes
Partners, The Armory
Ramzi Budayr, Mallory Cayon & Tyler Curtis
Co-Founders, FEW For All
Victor Guzman & Leo Oblea
Owners, La Santa Torta
Damián Diaz & Othón Nolasco
Co-Founders, No Us Without You LA
The Messmer Family
Co-Owners and Founders, Lively Run Dairy
Leah Penniman
Co-Founder and Farm Manager, Soul Fire Farm
Lynn & Nakia Price
Founders, Turkey Leg Hut
Guy Frenkel
Founder, Cast Your Bread
Dr. Ietef "DJ CAVEM" Vita
Eco Hip-Hop Artist, Vegan Chef and Co-Founder, Vita Earth Foundation
Lauren Halsey
Artist and Founder, Summaeverythang Community Center
Femi Rodney Frazer & LaToya Meaders
Co-Founders, Collective Fare
Chris Shepherd
Chef/Owner, Underbelly Hospitality; Co-Founder, Southern Smoke Foundation
Jacobsen Valentine
Founder, Feed the Mass
Joe & Celia Ward-Wallace
Co-Founders and Co-Owners of South LA Cafe
Education & Mental Health
Education & Mental Health
While mental health continues to be an ongoing crisis in the hospitality industry, the events of 2020 exacerbated the need for free or low-cost support for restaurant workers. Along with those devoted to education on various fronts, these local heroes helped keep their communities informed and supported during 2020.
Yemi Amu
Founder and Director, Oko Farms
Jenny Dorsey
Executive Director, Studio ATAO
Olivia McCoy
Founder, WeHelp NOLA
Christopher LeMark
Founder, Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health
Amanda Storey
Executive Director, Jones Valley Teaching Farm