The food and beverage industry can be notoriously rough on employees’ physical and emotional health. The pressures of opening a new restaurant or earning a Michelin star often don’t play nice with mental health issues like depression, PTSD or addiction, not to mention the physical strain of a double shift followed by a few too many shots at the bar.
But some owners are working to alter this gritty, unforgiving image, creating a healthier, more balanced environment for their employees. Just ask Michael Chernow, owner of Seamore’s, a seafood restaurant with five New York City locations. “The restaurant industry gets a bad rep as a place where it’s partying and cigarettes, but that’s not the way we see it,” he says. “Our goal is to offer a safe, happy place.”
A former competitive Muay Thai boxer who now runs and lift weights, Chernow values fitness for the focus and sense of purpose it provides. When the first Seamore’s location opened three years ago, employees worked out together on Wednesday mornings through a program called FitSquad. “We’d meet in front of the restaurant and go for runs or bring in instructors for yoga or boot camps [inside the restaurant] or we would go to other facilities,” Chernow says.
The program took a hiatus over the winter, but Chernow says they plan to relaunch the employee program in the spring, with a FitSquad yoga event open to the public on June 2. This will the second FitSquad event open to the public, with an industry-specific event in January that preceded the public one. “We partner with a fitness trainer and come up with a really great brunch menu that they help collaborate on,” he says. “They teach about 20 to 40 of our guests, take them through one of their fitness classes.” Cocktails and brunch follow the workout class.
In addition to FitSquad workouts, Seamore’s also offers its employees discount memberships at several local gyms. Chernow feels that the company’s focus on employee wellness has helped boost employee morale and retention (in fact, 85 percent of the original staff remains) and improve the guest experience. “When [your employees are] super pumped and excited and believe in the cause, then everybody who walks into our restaurant as a guest feels that,” he says.
Meanwhile in Boston, Broadway Hospitality Group takes a similar approach to employee fitness. With four restaurants (Lincoln Tavern, Loco Taqueria, Fat Baby and Capo) clustered around a block in South Boston, owner Mike Shaw says encouraging wellness has been a focus as the organization scales up. “We’re only as good as the people we employ and they’re only as good as the quality of life that they have,” he says.
Management at each restaurant organizes group fitness activities. “There’s constantly a staff cycling thing going on with [spin studios] The Handle Bar or Turnstyle,” Shaw says. “Our staff, our family of people which is fairly large at this point, they’ve taken it upon themselves to be able to work with a few local gym owners and specialty studio owners to offer discounts. We make sure that they feel empowered to advocate for their work/life balance.”
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Loco Taqueria also has a drug-free policy called “Livin’ La Vida Without the Loca.” Instead of a traditional employee handbook (which Shaw finds boring), Loco has a “playbook” for onboarding new employees that includes the policy, and Shaw says it’s been effective at getting employees to make smart lifestyle choices. “This was something that was so incredibly fun to watch people buy into,” he says.
Alas, sometimes saying no to drugs and staying active isn’t enough to ward off a health crisis. When preventative measures fail and restaurant employees need help paying medical bills or dealing with other catastrophic events, The Giving Kitchen provides financial assistance to restaurant workers in 47 Georgia counties (with the goal of serving the entire state by 2020).
The five-year-old nonprofit traces its roots back to Atlanta chef Ryan Hidinger, who was diagnosed with stage-4 gallbladder cancer in 2012. “He had insurance but the other expenses coming out of his pocket were quite substantial,” explains program director Leah Melnick. “They held a fundraiser to raise money for the extra costs and realized how much there was a need for other restaurant workers in a similar situation.” Hidinger died, but the nonprofit he inspired has helped about 1,100 restaurant employees with grants totaling over $1.7 million.
“Our goal is to keep a roof over your head and keep the water running,” Melnick says. “So that [money is] one less thing for you to stress about. You’re not only losing your income but you’re also struggling to make ends meet and paying additional money to handle the crisis itself. Restaurant workers already come in with such a low income, so they’re less prepared to deal with a crisis. We’re stopping a downward spiral towards what could be homelessness.”
The Giving Kitchen offers two types of crisis grants: direct grants and grants that match funds raised by the recipient’s restaurant, up to $2,500. “We recognize that there is a culture that has existed in the restaurant industry where people have taken care of their own,” Melnick says of the matching grant program. “They pass the hat when one of them is in crisis.” To that end, restaurants will sometimes host a fundraising event, crowdsource online or dedicate a menu item to an employee in crisis for a month and donate the proceeds.
Grant recipients submit documentation and undergo a rigorous application process, so those who don’t fit the organization’s eligibility criteria may still qualify for help through the SafetyNet program, which connects restaurant workers to resources such as counseling, funeral assistance, substance abuse help or immigration lawyers.
Applicants hear about The Giving Kitchen through coworkers or past grant recipients, at industry events, on social media or through flyers posted in break rooms.
“There’s a huge pride factor in the restaurant industry,” Melnick says. “It’s hard for restaurant workers to ask for help. They’ve always buckled down and figured it out. We’re trying to really to make sure that they know that it is possible to receive help and that asking for help is OK.”