Balancing Act

The more than 14 million workers in the restaurant industry – 10 percent of the American workforce – are the most at risk for illicit drug and substance use disorders and the third most at risk for heavy alcohol use, muscled out of that top spot by mining and construction respectively. 

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These numbers, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration are no surprise to anybody in the business. A highly charged industry fraught with peril, hospitality has long wreaked havoc on the physical and mental health of many of its workers, from hourly servers and bartenders to back of the house workers to salaried management. 

The expectation has always been for a relatively young labor pool to operate perfectly in a high stress environment. Business as usual meant performing at breakneck speed despite heavy workloads, low pay, insane hours, exposure to misogyny, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, verbal abuse and a tribal culture that often relied on drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.   

No wonder hospitality workers, from the cooks who plate your food to the dishwashers who cleanup to the servers and bartenders who try to serve with a smile, are not ok. The service industry is not even close to being back to “normal” whatever that means in today’s current state of affairs, where everything from inflation to supply chain and labor issues dominate the conversation. 

In New Orleans, where hospitality is the primary economic driver, COVID-19 exacerbated what was already an industry in crisis. When COVID-19 raged, restaurant workers were suddenly considered essential. Managers and owners found themselves on the front lines of enforcing rules and regulations that had nothing to do with what was on the menu. As friends, neighbors, family and community suffered a rollercoaster of pandemic anxiety, losses mounted. To dine in a restaurant, even socially distant, outside, masked up, was the balm of Gilead, a hint of the life that used to be. Customers were grateful, generous and solicitous. 

But that pandemic honeymoon is over. “Customers are back to acting like entitled assholes,” said one Uptown chef. A labor shortage was spawned, with hospitality workers exiting the industry in droves. “I can take a lot less abuse for a lot more money,” was how one worker explained his career shift into sales. Restauranters and customers are heard saying, again and again, ‘Nobody wants to work. Where did all the workers go?’ “They say it right in front of us, and we are the ones working,” said one server, rolling her eyes. 

But here’s the thing. The conversation is happening. We are talking about mental health and substance abuse, about equity, safe spaces, fair wages. OK, maybe the conversation was forced by a perfect storm that swirled around #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and the COVID-19 pandemic. Doesn’t matter. In New Orleans, of all places, there’s too much on the line to not fix what’s broken. 

In the trenches

“Being in the service industry can be like being in an abusive relationship,” said one 49-year-old bartender, who has been in the business more than two decades, most of that spent in the French Quarter. “You keep coming back to it despite the pain.” Speaking on the condition of anonymity, she recalls years of “pervie” managers and owners, verbally abusive chefs and rude customers. “I did it because the money was good,” she said. 

She now works in fast casual on the edge of the Quarter, a place where she feels supported by management. “I feel lucky – I have friends who are killing themselves at white tablecloth restaurants. Those places chew you up. I have one friend who is making six figures but has no life. He’s miserable. Another friend of mine left that same place because of the racism he saw. He called it The Plantation.”

Celebrated bartender Abigail Gulla got to the party late at 39, drawn to the performance aspect of hospitality. Feeling stifled in New York as a woman wanting to run her own bar, she came to New Orleans in 2012. “In New York, if you didn’t have a moustache, it was tough to move up. In L.A. you had to be super good looking. In New Orleans, I felt like I could be myself.” 

After doing more but making significantly less money every year, she left in 2018. “They didn’t want to pay me a salary for what I did, and I was done working for tips,” she recalled. Gulla recently came back to take a management position as creative director at LOA in the International House Hotel. 

“Many of us are in hospitality because we love what we do. We love creating that sense of community. We are the gateway to a wonderful experience, but that community can turn on you. A lot of my friends took a step back and figured, ‘We don’t need this grind, for what?’”  

Gulla believes that women still don’t get credit for the emotional intelligence they bring to the job. “There’s been movement, thanks to organizations like Turning Tables, which brings more women and people of color to their rightful place at the table. But they can only do so much – the real work has to be done in the community. How does the community treat people of color and women? Generally, not good.”

Beyond the Bar is another noteworthy program making a difference. An outgrowth of Tales of the Cocktail, which just celebrated its 20th year, Beyond the Bar is an in-person and virtual program that creates a safe space for physical and mental wellness and sobriety. “Physical health is deeply tied to mental health and longevity in career. We wanted to address that,” said Lola Thomas, program director for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. 

Chef Martha Gilreath, executive chef at the Chicory House in the Rink, has worked in hospitality for more than 20 years since she was 16. She is almost three years sober. “Dealing with all that sexism, heat and anger in the kitchen, we’d all go drinking until four or five in the morning. Then get up and do it all again. It was like being part of an exclusive club. I wanted to belong to it. Like every night was the cast party after the show closed. One big soap opera.”

She didn’t realize the downward spiral, didn’t know she needed help or how to ask. “Nothing against partying if you aren’t hurting people and can put it down. I was not that person.” After battling depression and living unhoused for years, Gilreath woke up one day knowing she didn’t want to die. “I knew how to get high, how to survive on the street. I didn’t know how to live sober as a kind, mindful woman.”

Now that she has a kitchen of her own, Gilreath is fierce about creating a safe place for employees to be heard and get the help and resources they need. Decisions – like opting to work four 10-hour days with three off – are made as a team. She wants her team to feel supported and heard. “That bad boy chef mentality has to stop. It’s killing people.” 

Help is available

It’s not so easy, as a small restaurant owner without a safety net, to stretch limited resources and do the right thing. Sophina Uong tries, every day. Uong, chef/owner of Mister Mao Uptown, has worked in the business for more than 25 years, the past five or so as an owner or manager. “COVID-19 has clearly changed people. We aren’t as optimistic about the world.” 

She wants to be part of the change. Uong has gotten serious about ongoing Diversity Equity and Inclusion initiatives and despite chronic labor shortages, a 50-hour work week is the norm. “If they work more, it’s bonus pay.”

Uong has seen depression, mental health issues and addiction in her own life, with family and friends, and sees those issues in the workplace. “We want to take care of our people, but we don’t have deep pockets.” When she heard of WeHelp New Orleans, it was a no brainer to sign up.

Established in 2020 by Oliva McCoy, WeHelp offers restaurant owners  deeply discounted access to mental health care for their employees. For restaurants with 25 or less employees, the monthly fee is $250, which includes two free monthly counseling sessions per worker and access to discounted holistic wellness services. All treatment is confidential, with the owner given a monthly report showing how many services were accessed by how many employees. “Last month I had five employees using WeHelp,” said Uong. “That makes it worth it.”

 “Cost and convenience are the two major obstacles for hospitality workers who need mental health counseling,” said McCoy, herself a longtime restaurant worker. “I saw an immense need; I saw so many of my friends succumbing. Trying to locate a provider, if you even have health insurance, seemed insurmountable.” The idea of a subscription service that spread the costs around and brought help within easy reach took hold. 

Katie Abadie is one of the WeHelp mental health professionals. “It was a great way to give back outside of my private practice,” she said. Abadie, who hostessed during college, recalls the physical and mental exhaustion of the work. She sees workers dealing with addiction, depression, anxiety, relationship and family problems. “If a person can’t afford to pay rent, if their car is broken down, if their family is in crisis, how can we expect them not to be dysfunctional. They bring those traumas to work.”

Keith Chazin is another therapist involved in the program. He worked in kitchens for a few decades and experienced industry stresses firsthand. “It certainly can perpetuate pre-existing conditions,” he said. “It’s hard, stressful work. At the end of the day, taking care of guests looks much differently if the people providing the care are doing ok themselves.”

Currently 46 restaurants work with the WeHelp New Orleans program, a wide-ranging list that incluides Turkey and the Wolf, Marjie’s, Blue Oak BBQ, Liuzza’s by the Track, Le Chat Noir, Addis, Bearcat and more, a list that continues to expand.

Chef Alex Harrell is well versed on the stresses inherent to hospitality. Harrell’s career has ranged from working his way up in kitchens to running his own restaurant, and managing hotel dining, first at Hotel Peter and Paul and now at Virgin Hotel New Orleans. The first eight years of his career he partied hard. Drinking became central in his life. 

“A lot of people saw a change in me, but I wouldn’t listen,” he recalled. “The light came on when I realized I was starting to think about when I could drink again. I was planning it, putting mental effort into it. I was like, oh shit, that’s not normal. I was starting to lose everything that mattered to me.” 

He made the choice to get sober in 2004. “The first meeting I went to, I had my hat pulled down over my eyes, dreading it. I saw a well-known chef in the room, and something just opened up inside. I realized I could do what I love, be a chef, and not drink.” Harrell now facilitates the local chapter of Ben’s Friends, a secular, hospitality focused group program founded in Charleston in 2016 by Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst after their mutual friend Ben took his life because of addiction. 

The local in-person meetings happen every Monday at 11a.m. at NOCHI Dining Lab 725 Howard Avenue in the Tisch Classroom on the third floor, with multiple Zoom meetings offered daily. “For me, when I had my first daughter, she became the reason for me not to drink every day,” said Harrell. “The weekly meeting is a place to support each other and share our stories.” 

Woke up

Polly Watts started her career as a corporate worker at BellSouth. Everybody had health insurance, mental health benefits, addiction counseling for employees and their families. When her dad opened Avenue Pub in 1987, like everybody else in the business, none of that existed for his employees. When she took over her dad’s bar in 2006, she saw work that needed to be done. Watts just sold the bar but is well known for her outspoken activism on behalf of service workers. 

Although she set a high bar, offering subsidized health insurance for workers, connecting them with a social worker to help navigate health and family challenges and paying above the industry standard. But she notes that not every initiative costs money. 

“Something as simple as giving people their schedules in advance so they can plan their doctor’s appointments, these are quality of life issues.” Paying employees fairly and treating them well is good business, said Watts. Her longtime GM Eileen Matuszewski got her first hospitality job at McDonalds at 16. She’s cycled through front and back of the house and knows from experience that if an owner is oblivious to an employee’s problems – say her special needs son can’t ride the school bus, or Uber drivers don’t take a worker to New Orleans East at two in the morning – that employee, no matter how good they are, is going to quit. “You have to problem solve with them.” 

“If you approach with an employee first mindset, it makes a difference,” said Watts. “ Start with respect. Our industry has been skewed for many years. We don’t have an unskilled labor force A chef may create the menu, but he’s not cooking 200 covers every night. That takes skill.”

LeBlanc + Smith is a boutique hospitality company rooted in New Orleans, with four restaurants and a hotel in its current portfolio. The company has come through the pandemic leaner and ever more committed to supporting and preserving its workforce through programs like WeHelp, a higher compensation model and a cap on weekly hours and two consecutive days off for salaried workers. “We place a premium on excellence, but never expect perfection,” said co-owner Robert LeBlanc. “When people strive for perfection, they are indecisive, they fret, they are terrified to make a mistake. We encourage learning from experience and taking responsibility when there’s an issue, but there are always ways to make it right.”

Committed to DEI with zero tolerance for any kind of abuse, aggression or discrimination, LeBlanc strives to lead by example, including owning up to his own mistakes to the team. “Look, hospitality skills are highly transferable to other industries, as we now see. We are the only industry that tries to make things harder on ourselves – it’s hard enough doing business in New Orleans. We need to work smarter, not harder. Eliminate things that are wasteful of time, motion and energy. We had a forced pause, and we took that time to tighten things up and double down.” 

Finding balance

For a small business owner like Chaya Conrad, whose Bywater Bakery is a bright hub of neighborhood activity and community support, walking the fine line between supporting employees and keeping necessary professional boundaries in place can be tricky. Six years since she left the corporate world of baking, Conrad is both proud and perplexed most every day. “We strive to support our team members and that’s lot to traverse, from depression and addiction to suicidal thoughts and homelessness. As a compassionate person, when someone is in crisis, you want to help.” She had a well-liked dishwasher who would work for a while, do well, then fall apart and disappear into the world of addiction. “We took him back multiple times, tried to find him housing, but how long can you keep that up?” 

Providing a structured workplace, a regular schedule and a supportive environment is a given, said Conrad. “I didn’t want to work in restaurants late hours, surrounded by alcohol, “she said. “My own mental health couldn’t take that. That’s why I opened a bakery.” 

Aaron Vogel’s background in theology has informed TurnChange, a restaurant group focused on turning profits and changing lives. Vogel, who has a growing number of District Donut locations, including the latest, District All Day Delicious in the CBD, is committed to running a profitable business while caring deeply for his team member’s holistic health.

The company provides health insurance for full time workers after a year, and contracts with an HR firm to give employees a safe and secure path to air grievances. Vogel understands the challenges that come with the territory. “We don’t know what is going on behind the scenes. We hold our patience, our kindness, our endurance and tact. We suffer long with people who might be coming from places of difficulty that we have no idea about. We do our part all the way until the end of the road – until in some way it’s inappropriate or they just can’t come back to work for a variety of reasons.”

Even when that happens, refusing to get angry, to lack empathy is not negotiable. “We all are enduring difficult times in this industry. As an owner, I know you can’t give and give without replenishing your own personal well. I have five kids, seven restaurants and two business partners. I constantly remind myself of truths that I believe are eternal. That allows me to come back day after day.” 

Restaurant After Hours offers a full list of mental health resources for hospitality workers.