On reality TV shows set in restaurant kitchens, the scene gets played out all the time. A maniacal chef barks expletive-laced orders at his terrified staff. When the pressure mounts, pots are thrown, knives slice fingers and tears are shed. The workers all labor frantically, with anxious, dazed looks in their eyes.
Toxic work environments like these are not all that uncommon in restaurants around the country, and the result has been a workforce with high rates of addiction and mental illness. Stressful kitchens aren’t the only factors that contribute to this problem: Many hospitality industry workers bring with them personal histories laced with trauma. An informal survey conduced by the online forum Chefs with Issues found that out of some 2,000 hospitality industry respondents, 94 percent reported having current or past mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
A group of local restaurateurs, led by Anne Spaeth, founder of The Lynhall in south Minneapolis, is working to improve the mental health of the industry through the Nourish series, an education program focused on promoting personal growth and emotional well-being.
Spaeth has also established the Long Table fund, a charitable resource managed by the Minneapolis Foundation that will provide crisis mental health care resources for restaurant workers. Profits from Nourish events will support the fund. With these resources, participants hope to address high employee turnover rates — and make their restaurants healthier, happier places to work.
New to the industry
Spaeth, who opened the Lynhall in June 2017, is new to the restaurant industry. Before she opened her market-inspired café, she worked as an assistant county attorney in Pine County and as a Hennepin County child protection advocate.
Deeply familiar with the signs and symptoms of trauma, Spaeth was surprised how often she recognized them in Lynhall employees.
“In the last year we’ve seen many of our employees struggling with addiction and mental health issues,” she said. “Many have had to step away from their jobs. Some of them have been able to recover and come back. Others haven’t.”
Spaeth realized that her own professional background and training gave her a deeper understanding of her employees’ struggles.
“Professionally, for me, there’s been this mash-up of these two worlds, of being in mental health and children’s welfare, and then finding myself in this industry where folks struggle disproportionately with chemical addiction and mental illness,” she said. “What I understand is that at the base of all of that is trauma. I want to explain those connections for other restaurant owners — and come up with ways to help our employees.”
In May, in recognition of Mental Health Month, Spaeth launched the Nourish series, specially priced chef’s dinners combined with topical speakers. One of the events, “basically a Trauma 101,” Spaeth explained, was offered only to members of the restaurant industry.
Events like Trauma 101, Spaeth said, are “a journey toward healing an industry. We really need to do a lot of inward reflection on the hospitality industry and how it could potentially be damaging its own employees without even realizing it. It’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s important for everyone.”
While improving employee mental health has been the focus of the Nourish series so far, there is another, more practical factor that may inspire restaurant industry folks to attend these events.
People who struggle with untreated mental illness and addiction often have a hard time staying in a job. With high rates of these issues endemic among its workforce, the hospitality industry is particularly impacted. Turnover rates among employees are high, and with record-low unemployment rates in the state, restaurant owners have found that finding and retaining good employees can be hard.
One group of industry insiders has been particularly dedicated to attending Nourish events. Spaeth jokingly refers to these most dedicated attendees as “The Coalition of the Willing.”
“These are people that felt that this issue was pressing enough that they wanted to understand more,” she said. “They are losing employees left and right, and something had to be done.”
While members of this group, which includes Ann Kim from Young Joni, John Sugimura from PinKU Japanese, Jeanie Jonas from Bellecour and Tami Wong from Rainbow Chinese, care about the overall health of their employees, they also share an understandable financial motivation.
“There’s the whole cost side to this,” Spaeth said. “Any employer knows that if you train somebody, and then they leave, it’s an expense. Industry colleagues have been telling me, ‘I’m really frustrated because I’m spending all this money training people and they keep walking out the door.’ ”
Impact in a shall shop
PinKU’s northeast Minneapolis restaurant is run by a small staff. When even one employee is struggling, the impact can be broad.
“I’m such a small shop,” Sugimura said. “When you have one person who is really challenged or actively using, it touches everybody. It might be one person, but when that is one out of 14 employees, it makes life hard for everyone.”
Soon, Sugimura will open a second, much larger location at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. The new PinKU will employ 40 to 60 employees. Sugimura worries about filling all the new positions — and about keeping them filled.
“I am seeing many potential employees coming in unhealthy with comorbid diagnoses like depression, anxiety and addiction,” he said. “It is rampant in the workforce and striking to say the least. If you have 20 percent or more of your workforce living with issues like that, that is dramatic. It’s practically impossible to keep a shop at full capacity.”
Sugimura said that Nourish series events have helped him look at the problem of hiring and retaining employees from a different perspective. Learning ways to create and nurture a trauma-aware working environment has opened his eyes and helped him develop strategies for supporting employees caught in the throes of personal struggles.
“You have to be an employer who cares,” Sugimura said. “Sometimes that means being direct and tough. You might need to say, ‘I care enough to tell you that you can’t do cocaine before work.’ That can be a hard thing to say, but it has to happen. Sometimes it’s giving them the time they need to recover and the making space for them when they come back.”
Sugimura said he wants to make his restaurant a sanctuary for troubled employees. He’s even applied for a $10,000 grant to provide financial support for his staff while they take time off for mental health and addiction assessments.
“With my employees, I want to say, ‘While you are working for me, I’m going to embrace you,” Sutimura said. “’You don’t have to filter yourself while you are here with me for your six-hour shift.’ There aren’t a lot of workplaces where you can do that, but a restaurant is one of them.”
Part of the package?
Some of the elements of restaurant work that appeal to so many — the flexibility, the low educational requirements, the fast pace, the temporary nature of many of the jobs — may also play a role in why so many people in the industry struggle with mental illness and addiction, Spaeth said.
“There are zero barriers to entry in this industry. You don’t have to have a high school education,” she said. “You don’t have to have a college education. You can show up with a felony. The positive thing is this is an industry that welcomes people with open arms.” In fact, people may be drawn to restaurant work because they can’t find jobs in other industries, she added.
Add to that the baked-in stress of cooking for and serving others. For some people, that “always-on” feeling can add up to an anxiety that boils over into addictive behaviors. Janas, who has worked in restaurants for more than 15 years, said she’s seen kitchen stress push some colleagues over the edge.
“It’s high pressure,” Janas said. “It’s high expectations. You want to deliver. You have to make a lot of people happy every single night. There are people that find joy in that: It gives them pleasure. And there are people who get overwhelmed and stressed out and engage in questionable behavior.”
Questionable behavior like drinking on the job. Spaeth explained that some restaurant workers take advantage of the easy access to alcohol in many establishments and imbibe throughout their shifts.
“For many years, that’s the way things worked,” she said. “Our general manager once told me, ‘I used to get tipped as a chef with whisky shots.’ I think in some restaurants the attitude is still, ‘Show up. Work hard. Then we’re going to party hard and come back and start the next day all over again.’ ”
Janas has observed that attitude in many of her coworkers over the years.
“Our environment can be one of excess,” she said. “By its very nature it is one of gluttony and enjoyment. There are definitely late nights and food and alcohol at your disposal, and historically that has gotten a lot of people in trouble.”
A changing culture
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In many restaurants, those days of excess are fading, Janas said. At Bellecour, management staff is committed to providing a healthy work environment for all employees.
“We don’t drink on the clock,” Janas said.
On-the-clock clean living may not be the case at every restaurant, but at a growing number of spots, kitchen staff have begun to clean up their act. Janas said that’s a key part of the culture at her restaurant: “We really are very committed to being professional and providing that steady environment. Our focus is on our guests, not on our own enjoyment and revelry.”
Sugimura said that when he opened his restaurant nearly 10 years ago, he was shocked to see just how deep the dysfunctional behavior ran. “The restaurant industry is a hot mess,” he said. But, thanks to the work of restaurant owners like Spaeth, the tide seems to be slowly turning.
The days of crazy kitchen behavior are going away, he said, perhaps in part because more and more kitchens have been remodeled to be physically visible to diners.
“We look better now,” he said. “You can’t act out without being seen by every guest. It may just be slapping a big red ribbon on a problem, but it does put people in check. And that’s a good thing.”
Limiting unprofessional kitchen behavior helps create an environment that reduces potential trauma triggers, Spaeth said. That’s a good step, she says. Like opening a kitchen to public view, taking a public stand on a restaurant’s values and goals leaves the environment open to the fresh air — and public scrutiny.
“I feel like we are putting a stake in the sand at The Lynhall and saying, ‘Our management team will have these values and that will translate across that higher level.’ These values will then flow down to everyone else on the staff. The result can only be good for everyone.”
Upcoming Nourish series events include a restaurant-industry reconvening later in July and, in August, a facilitated discussion on becoming a trauma-informed restaurant led by Olivia Mastry of Collective Action Lab and Suzanne Koepplinger, director of the Minneapolis Foundation’s Catalyst Initiative. For more information go to the Nourish web page, or contact Anne Spaeth: email@example.com