San Francisco Chronicle
Restaurants break for mental health
“My personal health is so much more important than making a sandwich.” More Bay Area spots close briefly to ease workers’ stress
In late July, Peterson Harter, feeling burned out, shut down his San Francisco sandwich pop-up Sandy’s for a weekend.
That one weekend turned into three as he slipped into a deep depression. His couch felt like a pool of quicksand, pulling him into a dark place where something as simple as brushing his teeth or picking up a phone call from his best friend felt insurmountable. The weight of the last year-plus — the pandemic capsizing all sense of normalcy, losing his restaurant job, throwing himself into baking bread 18 hours a day to survive — collapsed on him.
“I was giving more than I had to give,” Harter said.
Harter’s is among a wave of Bay Area restaurants and pop-ups that have recently closed temporarily to give time off to overworked employees feeling the mental and physical drain of working during the pandemic. Businesses that never closed for extensive breaks before, including prominent San Francisco restaurant the Morris and popular Berkeley cafe Bartavelle, shut down despite high demand and a need to make up for pandemic-inflicted losses.
This moment feels particularly trying, they say: Besides uncertainty about the delta variant, a short
age of workers means that even one person taking a day or two off creates extra work for others.
Many restaurant workers have found employment in other industries or left the Bay Area. But those who stayed say they’re feeling more stressed than ever. Big Table, a Washington-based nonprofit that connects hospitality workers to mental health care, said referrals shot up more than 400% in 2020 and started to spike again in the last few weeks.
The businesses that are taking breaks are the lucky ones; some don’t feel they can, fearing the financial losses or because staffers need the work. But more owners are now talking about it frankly in hopes of challenging the status quo in an industry that often demands personal sacrifice.
“Not only do we face the same fears and worries that the general public does, but we’re also relied upon for having a smile on our face and making people feel good about themselves for a night and to forget about the reality of the world,” said Blake Cole of Oakland bar Friends and Family, who said her business can’t afford a break. “It’s becoming harder and harder to put our own emotions aside to provide that to people — and I don’t think we should be.”
The restaurant industry is known for its long hours, physically demanding work and stigma around mental health issues, though that’s started to shift in recent years. Harter, who’s worked in acclaimed San Francisco restaurants such as Benu and the Progress, said it was ingrained in him to push through feelings of burnout. Taking a break or asking for help felt “laughable,” he said.
When the pandemic hit, existing stresses compounded. Restaurant staffers found themselves internalizing anxiety about their health and livelihoods while serving customers who are often increasingly difficult. Owners, meanwhile, have had to pivot their business models over and over again to keep their doors open.
Then as restaurants reopened and sales started to pick up earlier this year, restaurateurs found they couldn’t hire enough staff.
Ryan Blumenthal, the owner of Newkirk’s in San Francisco, worked seven days a week at his East Coast-style deli throughout the pandemic. Now, he needs surgery for work-related tendinitis in his elbows. But he doesn’t have enough staff to take time off to get the surgery. Two of his five employees have been hospitalized for mental health challenges, and Blumenthal often multitasks as sandwich maker, dishwasher and janitor.
He decided to close for a week in August, taking a loss of about $15,000. But for the first time since he opened Newkirk’s four years ago, he took a real vacation.
“It felt good to take a step back and relax and realize it’s going to be OK and this is really important just for mental health,” Blumenthal said.
Sonoma’s Valley Bar & Bottle closed for two weeks in January and then again two days before Memorial Day, the owners deciding that “health means more than numbers.” Iliana Berkowitz closed her San Leandro business, As Kneaded Bakery, for a week in August in part due to the strain of being understaffed.
“Everything has a cost, and it’s not always monetary,” Berkowitz said.
Then there are the food pop-ups that proliferated when restaurants were forced to close last year. Usually oneperson operations, their owners can’t make a living if they take a break.
Charles Chen runs his wildly popular Basuku Cheesecakes single-handedly: baking, delivering and promoting his Japanese cheesecakes while also searching for a space so he can expand. He put off taking a break for months, fearing that followers would simply move on to the next thing. But feeling fatigued and unmotivated after months of hustling, he finally closed for two weeks in July.
“Mentally I’m trying to tell myself to tolerate more just because there’s obviously so many changes right now. But the more you tolerate,” he said, “the more it wears over time as well.”
Harter said that taking a break from his popular muffuletta pop-up, which he runs alone, saved him. He took time for therapy, and found relief in surfing and sensory deprivation, floating in a dark, soundproof tank of water where he meditates. Sharing about his depression on Instagram felt healing too, Harter said. Customers, childhood friends and strangers reached out to check in and share their own mental health struggles.
He accepted the financial cost of closing: $4,500 in lost revenue and $1,000 in products he had to throw out.
“I love doing the pop-up, but I also don’t love working myself into the ground,” he said. “My personal health is so much more important than making a sandwich.”
Not all restaurateurs feel they can afford to close. After so many months of dramatically reduced sales and mounting debt, many said they need all the revenue they can get.
Kevin Finch, executive director of the nonprofit Big Table, said higher-end, more established restaurants are more likely to be able to afford to close for breaks. Paid time off is still rare in the restaurant industry, meaning most employees, particularly low-wage fast-food workers and undocumented workers, can’t afford to forgo a paycheck. Restaurants that received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, which benefited wealthy and white areas more, were also on relatively stronger financial footing.
Big Table, which operates on a referral model in Spokane, Wash., Seattle, San Diego and Nashville, has been most successful at connecting mental health professionals with white chefs, who often have an easier time accessing resources like his, Finch said.
“I do think there are advantages that you have from where you grew up and who you know and the network you have,” he said.
Phong Nguyen, owner of San Bruno restaurant Pho de Nguyen, is one of those who felt like he couldn’t take a break. In late August, exhausted from trying to keep the business going with four employees, he couldn’t hold food down. He started sobbing during a phone call with a friend and went to the hospital. Doctors prescribed antianxiety medication and told him to rest. He posted to Instagram a photo of an IV in his arm with the message, “Don’t push yourself too hard!”
He was back at the restaurant the next morning. Though the restaurant made a profit before the pandemic, sales are now unpredictable and it no longer does.
“Sometimes you have to decide whether it’s going to be your mental health or the restaurant,” Nguyen said.
Cole of Friends and Family knows her staff is feeling overwhelmed from managing customer expectations while navigating their own fears. But she can’t justify the cost of shutting down her relatively new bar even for a few days.
“The reality is that industry people work paycheck to paycheck. They’re apprehensive and nervous about how much money they’re going to be making as we head into the fall and winter,” she said. “I can’t in good conscience not give them their shifts.”
Some Bay Area owners have been trying to create business models that build in more breaks and balance. Cathay Bi structured Dumpling Club, her San Francisco business that opened during the pandemic, so she and her staff could afford time off. It now operates on a subscription model, which means predictable revenue, and she sets limits such as a smaller delivery radius.
Before Dumpling Club, she said, she was a Google analyst who wore all-nighters at the office like a badge of pride. Taking a break is an important rejection of the message that success has to come at a personal cost, she said. She recently posted about her vacation on her business’ Instagram.
“Growing up, I was taught that to be successful, I had to make sacrifices. Successful people work the hardest out of anyone,” Bi wrote. “Well, here I am: the picture of an entrepreneur. I take breaks. I encourage my staff to take breaks. I set boundaries for work time and family time.”
That’s tougher to do at most traditional restaurants and bars. Rather than close, Cole posted on Instagram asking for suggestions for affordable mental health resources. She received an outpouring of suggestions for sliding scale therapy, yoga, meditation and other services. It also prompted her to restart her own search for a therapist.
Chefs like Harter and Nguyen are trying to create balance where they can. Harter stopped drinking. Nguyen plans to start psychotherapy and is creating a meditation space in the restaurant that’s open to all. Berkowitz is already planning to close As Kneaded Bakery for four days after Thanksgiving, its busiest time of the year.
Patrick Mulvaney, who just reopened his Sacramento restaurant after closing for 10 days, wants people to know the importance of taking breaks and making space for conversations about mental health. In 2019, he started a restaurant mental health nonprofit called I Got Your Back after several deaths by suicide in the local industry. While the financial hit of closing down is scary, he said, “the cost of not doing it is more dire.”
“If what we do is hospitality and what we do is take care of people, pushing people this far is not taking care of people,” he said. “We have to stop and look in the mirror and say, how are we doing with ourselves?”