When Hurricane Ian tore through Fort Myers and the surrounding areas in September 2022, leaving hundreds of Floridians stranded in its wake, Bryan Jacobs, a USF alum, Marine Corps veteran and owner of the Liberty Smokehouse, leapt into action.
“In the Marine Corps, we’re ‘the first to fight.’ There’s something so powerful about those words. You’re the first to create the opportunities for others to thrive,” said Jacobs, who drove south to provide “hot, whole, fresh meals” to those hit the hardest by the Category 4 hurricane.
“There's a real gap in those first five to seven days, right after a storm, where there’s no fresh food, no water, no community, no hope. You’re walking around like a zombie. And the big organizations don’t have the ability to move as fast as we do. There’s so much red tape,” Jacobs said. “Our mission is and was to come in and bring people together at a strategic point and create hope one plate at a time. By coming together over food, it creates an opportunity to rebuild — not just physically, but emotionally as well.”
Jacobs spent four days in Fort Myers Beach, serving up to 1,000 meals each day, before refocusing his efforts on Pine Island.
“The community is starting to come back,” he said. “It’s going to be a slow build, but there’s a lot of beauty in the process.”
The value of an opportunity to rebuild is not something Jacobs takes lightly.
In 2005, upon re-entering civilian life after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, Jacobs felt adrift without his “tribe.” He soon found himself living in his car.
“I got out of the military, and I kind of went through this face-falling adventure. Ended up going through about 33 different jobs, figuring out everything I didn’t want to be, everything from car sales to gutter sales to air conditioner sales,” said Jacobs. “I sold lawn mowers. I was a bouncer, a phlebotomist, a personal trainer, a rehab specialist, a door-to-door guy. It wasn’t until 2009 that I really began rethinking things.”
It was then that Jacobs enrolled at USF, where he was involved in student veteran affairs, founded the Vets-2-Chefs program and received the 2017 Col. Frederick J. Graves Veteran of the Year award.
After graduation, Jacobs went on to study culinary arts at l’Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, and innovation management and leadership at Haaga-Helia in Helsinki, Finland. Back home in the States, he opened a fine dining restaurant in Boston and founded Vets 2 Success — a nonprofit organization that trained homeless and displaced military veterans and family members in food arts and brewing programs — before turning his attention to his latest project, the Liberty Smokehouse.
“What I was doing with Vets 2 Success was beautiful, but at the same time it wasn’t enough,” Jacobs said. “If I’m going to create an opportunity for veterans, then I better be able to hire them. I better be able to provide more than education and training and a changed mindset.”
For Jacobs, the pandemic served as a reset and an opportunity for him to again ask himself, “What is it that I can do?”
The answer was obvious to Jacobs.
“Be the first to fight and create an opportunity through innovation, kindness and doing what we love to do — cook. And help people find hope through community and food.”
Thus, the Liberty Smokehouse, a wood fire mobile restaurant housed in a retired "deuce and a half” was born. In addition to providing disaster relief in the aftermath of storms like Hurricane Ian, the Liberty Smokehouse also creates community in peacetime.
“Part of our mission is to go to American Legions, set up our restaurant and invite people to learn about American history, veteran history, veteran initiatives, community initiatives, who veterans are, what they do, what their community needs are and why the larger community should be involved in the American Legion,” Jacobs said. “History’s important, not because we did it right, but because we did it wrong. And that’s the beauty of having a past.”
“We’ll train the veterans, employ them and then hopefully create an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), where 20% of the revenue goes back to the employees, so they become, in part, owners of the project.”
In the meantime, Jacobs is working on outfitting his mobile concept with sustainable energy sources, thereby increasing its response time and overall flexibility.
“It’s simple. My purpose is to change lives through food,” Jacobs said. “On both sides of the plate.”
Boundless Bulls is a collection of stories about what truly makes USF great — the people. It is a focus on our community footprint, our impact and the trajectory of where we can go together. To nominate a member of the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus community for Boundless Bulls, please fill out the submission form.