Imagine this: it’s 9 p.m. on a Friday night, and you’re working at a busy restaurant. The air is filled with the loud voices of guests digging into appetizers and dinner plates while sipping wine and cocktails, but you’re in the kitchen over hot stoves, trying to cook up consistent perfection. Or you’re hustling back and forth from the bar to the kitchen and back to tables for refills, vying for the good graces of your guests so that you can pay your bills with their gratuity.
After a long shift, it’s finally 2 a.m. and you’re tired, but you know the next day is going to be almost exactly the same — and the day after that and the day after that. How do you cope? Pick up a cigarette addiction? Self-medicate with alcohol? Slip into harder drugs to ease the come-down from adrenaline that’s been coursing through your body for the last six hours? Many who face this reality fall into a cycle that leads to one of the most common ailments among workers in the service industry: burnout.
Burnout affects countless people in the service industry — namely in the restaurant and hospitality fields. Long hours and constant high levels of stress cause some people to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms or quit the industry altogether, leaving more stress on those trying to fill shifts and find new employees. According to the The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, the turnover rate in the restaurant and accommodations sector was 70 percent. But why does burnout happen? And why is it so prevalent in restaurants?
Kris Reid, the executive director of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, has over an a decade of experience as a chef. She says the environment itself may be to blame for burnout.
“There’s always been a very destructive undertone in the culinary culture that includes very demanding positions physically, emotionally and mentally,” she said, adding that the pressure can be especially high for chefs. “As a chef, you’re putting out your craft every day for people to judge and if people don’t have a good experience, that can beat the hell out of you emotionally,” Reid continued. “In addition to that, after running a high-stress service shift, we typically don’t take it down by using breathing techniques or going for a walk, we go get amped up with stimulants like cigarettes and alcohol or drugs.”
Piedmont Culinary Guild hosts a yearly symposium that brings in professionals in farming, business and culinary facets of the restaurant industry. In the past, they’ve focused solely on those three tracks for the day-long Food and Beverage Symposium. For this year’s event on March 17 at Johnson & Wales University, the guild has added a new track: mental wellness.
Reid said the addition was made by popular demand, as so many in the restaurant industry look for a platform to discuss and address the issues of burnout.
“In the industry, burnout talk, I think that you will hear a lot about the egregious nature in which people have been abused in the industry, and also how they abused themselves in the industry, and part of this conversation clearly will include sobriety as a pathway toward mental health for some people,” she said.
Many people around the world struggle with sobriety, but it can be especially difficult in the restaurant industry. While most fields have no tolerance for alcohol abuse of any sort, in restaurants it’s often accepted as the crutch that gets you through the day and onto the next shift.
In 2016, Ben Murray was helping chef Steve Palmer with the opening of a new restaurant. The two had worked together on and off for about 20 years, and Palmer invited him to assist in a new concept in South Carolina. Even though Murray appeared to be sober, never taking a drink at work, he was relapsing in his hotel room at night, and he eventually shot and killed himself.
Palmer was shocked to find that the man he had been working so closely with was in crisis, and disappointed that Murray felt he couldn’t reach out for help.
“I was really struck by the fact that on opening night in that restaurant, there were four people in recovery in the kitchen working next to Ben,” Palmer said. “But there was something in his ethos, something in the culture of the kitchen, that he didn’t feel like he could ask for help.”
In the wake of his friend’s suicide, Palmer partnered with Mickey Bakst, another chef, to start Ben’s Friends, a support group that caters specifically to those in the restaurant industry who are looking for a pathway to sobriety without having to leave the culinary field.
Since its inception, Ben’s Friends has expanded to seven cities. Two “chairs,” who are people in the industry that have been sober for at least a year, run weekly meetings in a format designed by Bakst and Palmer. The Charlotte chapter meets every Monday at 11 a.m. at Oak Steakhouse on Sharon Road near SouthPark Mall.
With the launch of Ben’s Friends and other organizations across the country, the culture in the kitchen and behind the bar has begun to shift. It’s no longer taboo to pursue sobriety or start taking care of yourself before you begin taking care of guests.
Palmer said he’s noticed this shift in the culture.
“What’s great about our industry right now, we spend every night taking care of other people and I think we’re finally learning to take care of ourselves and take care of each other. There’s this real sort of awareness around human sustainability, where we’re starting to realize you can’t work like this and then go out after work and blow yourself to bits and expect to be a whole human being.”
Even though Ben’s Friends is only in a few Southern cities plus one in Portland, Oregon, Palmer believes that his and Bakst’s organization can grow to cover the entire country.
“My goal is 50 states. I wanna be in every state in America,” Palmer said. “I think that there’s a need. I think that based on the response we’re feeling, there’s desire.”
Amber Donoghue, a bartender at Empire Pizza & Bar in Fort Mill, South Carolina, has lived her entire professional life in the restaurant and service industry. Though she enjoys bartending and calls herself a “lifer,” she can relate to the feeling of burnout.
It’s not only about the pressure of what’s happening at work, but what’s happening outside of work. After all, a server’s busiest hours are the times when everyone else’s social lives are at their most active.
“You miss a lot,” Donoghue said. “You’re like the stage and the players get to walk on the stage and live their life, do the thing, and you don’t. You miss almost all of life. You get to witness all of it.”
Donoghue has mastered her own self-care tactics as a way of riding out the storm of slinging drinks and the chaos of late nights, as she explained when we met in her favorite spot, Trade & Lore coffee shop in NoDa. She’s even got her favorite corner where she finds the most peace.
“I sit in this corner, I read,” she said. “I took the T.V. off the wall [at home] like four years ago, because it’s noise.”
After a particularly bad day at work, Donoghue might bring her circa 1950s Magnavox record player off the shelf, place it on the floor and blast jazz music at full volume while she lies on the hardwood to feel the vibrations.
“I have a record collection that I love a lot. I just turn it all the way up on the wood floor and let the vibration seep into my body as much as possible to shake me out of the insanity,” Donoghue added. “Just ’cause you need something to get you out [of the stress].”
When addressing mental health in the restaurant industry, Reid said she thinks that focusing on the good rather than the bad will help bring about more change in culture.
“I really would like to see conversation be about the change that is happening because of the attention that is being drawn … pulling back the curtain on the back of house in restaurants, and even the front of house,” she said. “And really showcasing some of the dysfunction that has happened in the past is helping us find a better way forward as a community.”
One way to move forward is with the help of the consumers. According to Reid, the prices on the menu are not accurately reflecting the price and value of labor that brings the product from harvest to kitchen to table.
Consumers may be compliant in burnout without even knowing the harm that they’re doing, so it’s important for the general public to understand menu prices.
“We’re not willing to raise those menu prices because we won’t be able to compete with the guy next door, but the reality is that as long as those prices are deflated, so is the price of that labor that we can afford,” Reid stated. “The consumers have to eventually understand their role in the dysfunction of the industry. They are part of the dysfunction because of their demand on the industry and their unwillingness to pay for the service.”
In the meantime, organizations such as Ben’s Friends and Piedmont Culinary Guild will continue working to ease the onslaught of burnout, so restaurant employees can get out of the frying pan and stay out of the fire.