Even as the restaurant industry faces unprecedented issues because of the coronavirus pandemic, the folks who run the Austin Food & Wine Alliance have been working all summer on an unprecedented expansion.


The organization announced Wednesday that is was adding three more city-based organizations, as well as a state-wide nonprofit, to help raise money to support food businesses around Texas.


The AFWA launched almost a decade ago as the successor of the 27-year Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, and its distinguishing feature was a grant funding program that awarded money to chefs, farmers, artisan producers, wine-, beer- and spirit-makers, and food-focused nonprofits.


In the past eight years, AFWA has raised $336,500 in grant funding, and during the pandemic, the organization gave away $14,000 in immediate COVID-19 aid.


"We recognize this expansion is a big leap, but with the support of so many chefs who are committed to giving back to their communities, we know we can make a huge impact and not only help to preserve but also grow these vital local food systems," said Cathy Cochran-Lewis, AFWA board president and grant chair.


Organizers say the San Antonio Food & Wine Alliance, Dallas Food & Wine Alliance and Houston Food & Wine Alliance will take this model to the state’s largest cities, with grant-giving launching in the other cities in 2021. The newly formed Texas Food & Wine Alliance will include all four organizations, and the organization hopes to also give grants to recipients outside of these major cities through the TFWA.


"From day one of the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, I have seen first-hand their community outreach and how it has helped keep the hospitality group together and help grow in positive and sustainable ways," San Antonio chef Jason Dady said via release. "I’m beyond excited to have them in San Antonio."


Mariam Parker, AFWA executive director who will also become the executive director of the statewide organization, says that the current climate in the food industry was a big reason for the group’s expansion this year. "The pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to the Texas hospitality industry and it will take many years for full recovery," she said. "There is no greater time than now to fortify, to showcase, and to support the breadth of Texas talent, culinary businesses, and nonprofits."


This year’s Austin Food & Wine Festival, as well as AFWA’s annual events, including Live Fire and Wine & Swine, were canceled because of the pandemic. None of the new alliances will host in-person events this year, but there are two online events planned for this fall.


The Alliance Academy is a new online cooking series launching September 17 that will feature chefs and mixologists from across the state, including Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri in Houston, Edgar Rico and Sara Mardanbigi of Nixta Taqueria, Mixtli chef Rico Torres of San Antonio, Jackie Letelier of the Austin-based Casero, and Emmer & Rye’s Tavel Bristol-Joseph, who was a Food & Wine magazine best new chef this year.


Viewers can cook along with ingredients from the Austin-based Assembly Kitchen, which will ship the meal and cocktail kits nationwide. You can find out more about this virtual series and the latest news about the new organizations at texasfoodandwinealliance.org.


Also new this fall is an expanded, virtual Culinary Arts Career Conference, an event that typically brings hundreds of Central Texas high school culinary students to Austin for a one-day program. Now in its seventh year and hosted by the Texas Food & Wine Alliance, this year’s conference will invite culinary students from across the state to participate in an online career showcase during the week of Oct. 26 to 30.


The week of programming will be filled with panels from top culinary professionals, chef demos and presentations from food and beverage professionals from around the country, including keynote speaker Alon Shaya.


Over the years, the Austin Food & Wine Alliance has infused cash into more than 30 local food businesses and nonprofits, including the local food rescue organization Keep Austin Fed, the veteran-owned Snodgrass Farms in Georgetown, Barton Springs Mill, Foodways Texas and the Multicultural Refugee Coalition. The grants typically range from $2,500 to $15,000 each.