Firebox Initiative helps service industry workers in Golden Isles area

Credit: Courtesy of the Firebox Initiative

Credit: Courtesy of the Firebox Initiative

Allison Ellis, a server at Brogen’s North on St. Simons Island, first received help from the Firebox Initiative during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ellis received a grant of $250 from the nonprofit, which provides emergency financial assistance to service industry workers in the Golden Isles, the coastal region that includes St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island and Brunswick.

Firebox came to Ellis’ aid again this past April when her husband, a kitchen manager at Brogen’s North, required an emergency quadruple bypass. The medical problem put Ellis’ husband out of work for three months and she was out of work for two months, as well. With three kids living at home, they relied on their income from the restaurant, Ellis said.

“At that time, there was a lot of unknown,” she said. “I was worried — I didn’t know how we were going to make it.”

Firebox reached out to Ellis and her husband after the owners of Brogen’s North told the nonprofit about the situation. Brad Hummel, Firebox’s executive director, sent Ellis a link to fill out an application for aid. Soon after, Firebox provided the couple with much-needed financial assistance while they were out of work.

“Knowing that Firebox is there, that is incredibly important, because there’s so many other people like myself that need assistance,” Ellis said. “And there’s so many people that don’t like to ask for help or are embarrassed to ask for help, and they do not make you feel ashamed or like you’re a burden.”

Since Firebox Initiative opened five years ago, its impact on the service workers in Glynn and McIntosh Counties has increased steadily. The nonprofit has given out more than $300,000 in emergency assistance grants, said Ann Taylor, general manager of operations for Southern Soul Barbecue, and now it is expanding into neighboring Camden County.

Southern Soul Barbeque owners Griffin Bufkin and Harrison Sapp founded Firebox in 2018, but the idea was sparked years earlier after their restaurant burned down. They received an influx of donations and community support, and they wanted to find a way to repay that generosity.

An example of what could be done locally was provided by Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that provides emergency assistance to food service workers, said Harrison Sapp’s wife, Kitty, the CFO of Firebox.

Credit: Courtesy of the Firebox Initiative

Credit: Courtesy of the Firebox Initiative

The Firebox Initiative is a way to “help the people that have always helped us,” Hummel said.

To receive emergency assistance, service workers in the Golden Isles area can fill out the application on the Firebox website at After submitting the request, a committee looks it over, with the aim of responding within 24 to 48 hours.

“We like to act fast, because if they’re asking for [help], they need it,” Hummel said.

Firebox offers support for financial needs resulting from illness, accident or natural disaster and will pay expenses that sustain “basic life needs,” Taylor said. This could include rent, utilities, insurance bills and more.

Ellis said Firebox understood the importance of her role in the service industry and made her feel appreciated.

“That is very important because, in my opinion, sometimes we are often overlooked,” she said.

“Most of the time in the restaurant industry, we don’t have anybody to help us or take care of us,” said Lance Williams, owner of Mallery Street Cafe on St. Simons. “A lot of people don’t want to hear our sob stories.”

Williams has seen the impact Firebox has had on his own staff members, especially during the pandemic. “It was the difference in, you know, having decent food on the table and paying your bills during one of the most questionable times in our lives,” he said.

Credit: Courtesy of the Firebox Initiative

Credit: Courtesy of the Firebox Initiative

Since the pandemic, requests for grants have nearly doubled to around 50 a year, Taylor said. As a result, the nonprofit has expanded its fundraising opportunities to include a local golf tournament and an online auction, as well as introducing more donor platforms for corporations and individuals.

Meanwhile, Firebox’s largest fundraiser, BBQ on the Bluff, has been running since 2018 and will take place Sept. 30. This year, the Eric Culberson Band will provide live music at the entrance, and an array of pitmasters will set up tasting stands around Gascoigne Bluff, including Atlanta’s Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. The food is chef’s choice, with everyone trying to one-up one another, Taylor said.

Tickets for the event are sold out, but there still are opportunities to join a giving circle, which provides benefits to donors, including access to BBQ on the Bluff. Firebox also is always looking for volunteers and one-time donations.

While the nonprofit isn’t planning to expand too far beyond the Golden Isles, it is working to increase awareness of its brand and mission, Taylor said. In the coming months, a scholarship opportunity for young adults in the service industry and children of service workers will be introduced.

The community has rallied around Firebox and its mission, Taylor said, from the pitmasters who donate their time and talents to BBQ on the Bluff, to service workers like Ellis who spread the word about the nonprofit.

“[Firebox] said, if not now, when, and the community said we’re in with you,” she said.

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