Restaurant jobs have always been difficult, but the mental stress has gotten worse during the pandemic as restaurants closed or cut hours — or became ground zero for the fight over mask-wearing.
“It is totally nerve-wracking sometimes because all of my tables I’m interacting with aren’t wearing their masks,” said Nikki Perri, a server at French 75, a restaurant in downtown Denver. “I am within 6 feet of people who are maskless.”
Perri is 23, a DJ, and a music producer. And she’s not just worrying about her own health.
“I’m more nervous about my partner. He’s disabled. He doesn’t have the greatest immune system,” she said.
After the initial shutdown, French 75 was having problems finding employees when it reopened. So were other restaurants.
“We put a Survey Monkey out and pay was No. 3,” said chef and owner Frank Bonanno. “Mental health was No. 1. Employees wanted security, and mental health, and then pay.”
His company, Bonanno Concepts, runs 10 Denver restaurants including French 75, Mizuna, and Denver Milk Market. The survey went out to employees of all 10. Bonanno said these jobs offer competitive pay and good health insurance, but the mental health benefits aren’t very good.
“Most such psychologists and psychiatrists are out-of-pocket for people to go to. And we were looking for a way to make our employees happy,” he said.
That, according to his wife and co-owner, Jacqueline, was when they had a revelation: Let’s hire a full-time mental health clinician.
“I know of no other restaurants that are doing this, groups or individual restaurants,” she said. “It’s a pretty big leap of faith.”
It took a little while to figure out what exactly employees wanted and what would be most helpful. Focus groups began in summer 2021 and they made a hire in October 2021.
Qiana Torres Flores, a licensed professional counselor, took on the new and unusual role. Her title is “wellness director.” She’d previously worked one-on-one with clients and in community mental health. She said she jumped at the chance to carve out a profession within the restaurant world.
“Especially in the restaurant and hospitality industry, that stress bucket is really full a lot of the time. So I think having someone in this kind of capacity, just accessible and approachable, can be really useful,” she said.
Traveling among the 10 restaurants, Flores has led group sessions and mediated conflicts between employees. She has taught the company’s 400 employees techniques to cope with stress, and put on Santa’s Mental Health Workshop to help with holiday-related sadness and grief. She has done one-on-one counseling and referred some employees to more specific types of therapy.
“Not only is there help, but it’s literally 5 feet away from you and it’s free and it’s confidential. And it’s only for you,” Flores said.
The owners say her presence gives them a competitive advantage and hope it helps them retain their employees.
Restaurant staff members often work difficult hours and can be prone to substance use issues — a grind-it-out mentality is part of the job culture. Many workers either don’t ask for help or don’t always see mental self-care as important.
“It has been a really important option and a resource for our team right now,” said Abby Hoffman, general manager of French 75. “I was just overjoyed when I found out that this program was starting.”
She gives the effort high marks, and said it builds on earlier efforts to recognize the psychological toll of restaurant jobs.
“I think the conversation really started around the death of Anthony Bourdain, knowing how important mental health and caring for ourselves was,” Hoffman said.
The death by suicide of the charismatic Bourdain, a celebrity chef who openly struggled with addiction and mental illness, resonated with many restaurant workers.
Bourdain died in mid-2018. Then, Hoffman said, came the pandemic, which helped relaunch tough conversations about the psychological impacts of their jobs: “We were, again, able to say, ‘This is so stressful and scary, and we need to be able to talk about this.’”
Voicing these concerns, she speaks for an entire industry. The Colorado Restaurant Association recently conducted a survey, and a spokesperson says more than 80% of its members reported an increase in the stress levels of their staff over the past year. A third of the restaurants fielded requests for mental health services or resources from employees in the past year. More than 3 in 4 restaurants reported a rise in customer aggression toward staff members.
Denise Mickelsen, a spokesperson for Colorado’s restaurant association, said she’s unaware of other restaurants or groups hiring a full-time staffer dedicated to health and wellness.
“It’s fair to call what they’re doing fairly unique and/or innovative,” said Vanessa Sink, director of media relations for the National Restaurant Association. “It’s something that some of the larger chains have been trying but is not widespread.”
Other projects in a similar vein are springing up. One is called Fair Kitchens. It describes itself as a “movement fighting for a more resilient and sustainable foodservice and hospitality industry, calling for change by showing that a healthier culture makes for a healthier business.” It cited research by Britain-based Unilever Food Solutions that found most chefs were “sleep deprived to the point of exhaustion” and “felt depressed.”
Back in Denver, the server Perri said she’s grateful her employers see workers as more than anonymous, interchangeable vessels who bring the food and drinks “and actually do care about us and see us as humans. I think that’s great. And I think other places should catch up and follow on cue here.”
And if that happens, she said, it could be a positive legacy from an otherwise tough time.
This story is part of a partnership that includes Colorado Public Radio, NPR and KHN.