You could call it a pandemic triple-whammy: economic uncertainty, plus stressful work, plus plenty of interactions with all kinds of people. There aren’t too many Coloradans who’ve faced that quite like folks who work in restaurants, like server Nikki Perri.
“It is totally nerve-wracking sometimes because all of my tables I'm interacting with aren't wearing their masks,” said server Nikki Perri. “I am within six feet of people who are maskless.”
Perri works at French 75, a restaurant in downtown Denver. She’s 23, a DJ and music producer and has worries not just about her own health.
“I'm more nervous about my partner. He disabled. He doesn't have the greatest immune system,” she said.
She is not alone in feeling that stress, that anxiety. After the initial shutdown, the restaurant was having problems finding employees, as was everybody.
“We put a Survey Monkey out and pay was number three,” said chef and owner Frank Bonanno. “Mental health was number one. 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. He said it has good insurance, but it doesn’t usually cover mental health well.
“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.
Taking 'a leap of faith' and hiring a wellness director
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.”
So to their menu of restaurant workers, which included titles like chef, bartender, server, they added a new one: wellness director.
Qiana Torres Flores got the job. She’d worked as a licensed professional counselor and in community mental health, but jumped at the chance to create something new.
“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.
Flores has led group sessions and mediation. She’s 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’s done one-on-one counseling and helped a few employees get more specific therapy.
“Not only is there help, but it's literally five feet away from you and it's free and it's confidential. And it's only for you,” she said.
Continuing a conversation 'started around the death of Anthony Bourdain'
Flores is six months into this new adventure. The owners say her presence gives them a competitive advantage and hope it helps with retention of restaurant employees, who often work crazy hours, can be prone to substance use issues, but have a grind-it-out mentality.
“It has been a really important option and a resource for our team right now,” said Abby Hoffman, the general manager of French 75. “I was just overjoyed when I found out that this program was starting.”
She gives the effort high marks.
“I think the conversation really started around the death of Anthony Bourdain, knowing how important mental health and caring for ourselves was,” Hoffman said. “And we were able to kind of have that conversation a little bit.”
The passing of the charismatic Bourdain, who openly struggled with addiction and mental health troubles, resonated with many restaurant workers. Then, Hoffman said, came the pandemic.
“We were, again, able to say, ‘this is something, this is so stressful and scary, and we need to be able to talk about this,’” she said.
Hoffman speaks for an entire industry. A recent survey by the Colorado Restaurant Association found more than 80 percent of its members report an increase in the stress levels of their staff over the past year. A third got requests for mental health services or resources from employees in the past year. More than three out of four report a rise in customer aggression towards them.
Helping workers manage all kinds of stress
Jacqueline Bonanno said Flores has given ways to help employees to manage a variety of stressors, no small thing.
“We have a generation of people who have been dealing with mass shooter drills, who have now gone through a pandemic, who were fired en masse from their jobs,” she said. “And if, as a society, we can't provide those resources, then maybe as an employer we can.”
One member of that generation, server Perri, agrees.
“We're all going through it now for sure. It's affecting everybody. So I think it has brought people closer together in a kind of beautiful way, even though it's been sad and scary and hard,” she said.
Perri added she’s grateful her employers see workers as more than just anonymous, interchangeable vessels that 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 says, it could be a positive legacy from an otherwise tough time.
Bonanno Concepts has also taken other steps to manage the challenges of the pandemic. Last year, it chose to require customers to show proof of vaccination.
A spokeswoman for the state’s restaurant association said she’s unaware of other restaurants for groups hiring a full-time staffer dedicated to health and wellness. But Denise Mickelsen said Pomegranate Hospitality, which owns Safta at the Source in Denver, has a director of people and culture who handles health and wellness, and they have an employee assistance program that helps with mental health counseling.
Bonanno Concepts operates the following restaurants:
- Green Russell
- Russel's Smokehouse
- Vesper Lounge
- Salt & Grinder
- French 75
- Denver Milk Market
- Lou's Food Bar
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!