In 2020, Shay Wright had been working for nearly a year as a bartender in Morningside. The busy rooftop bar that employed her could be a demanding place: Servers and bartenders constantly needed to run up and down the stairs for supplies, sweating in the hot outdoor air. That stress was compounded, of course, by the pandemic—and by higher-ups who weren’t taking it very seriously. “The owner said Covid wasn’t real,” Wright says. “This was right at the beginning, the first few months, where people were dying left and right.”
When Wright was let go from that job, it gave her a chance to reset. She found respite in A Sip of Paradise—a community garden in East Atlanta Village created by Keyatta Mincey Parker at the beginning of the pandemic to give bartenders a place to recharge. Looking for employment, Wright also realized her approach to work had changed. Previously, she would try to take the bad parts of a job in stride—“whereas after the pandemic, it was like, Not feeling this, not liking how you’re treating your staff, not liking how you’re getting over on your staff. Not liking the energy or the dynamics,” says Wright, who’s now been tending bar for three and a half years. She needed a job that was better for her mental health.
From hostile customers to grueling hours to low wages, restaurant work has always been challenging. Those in the industry face high rates of anxiety and depression, as well as higher reported rates of substance use disorder than workers in other professions. Restaurant workers are “oftentimes asked to check their feelings at the door,” says Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, who cofounded Giving Kitchen in 2013 to provide financial assistance to food-industry workers in crisis—for instance, somebody missing work due to an injury. Since then, the organization has widened its focus, creating a “stability network” to connect workers to free and low-cost community resources related to mental health, housing, and more, and launching initiatives promoting mental health and treatment for substance abuse.
Those moves reflect a greater awareness that’s taken hold in the industry in recent years. “I think that, ultimately, the biggest challenge that we all, as a community, need to work through is destigmatizing that fear and reassuring anyone that it’s okay to not be okay,” says Hidinger-Kendrick, who today serves as Giving Kitchen’s senior director of community engagement. Workers like Wright—exhausted by the pandemic and empowered by the ongoing labor shortage—are also paying closer attention to their own well-being and advocating for what they need.
Employers are responding. Little Tart Bakeshop owner Sarah O’Brien has offered health insurance to her employees for nearly a decade and, last summer, implemented a 4 percent fee on all transactions to help Little Tart cover a larger part of the costs of employee benefits, including health insurance and sick leave. Her aim is to create the possibility of sustainable careers in an industry where burnout is common. “We have to get creative, because it’s not easy to make enough money to do that selling croissants, honestly,” O’Brien says. Little Tart also recently moved one of its managers, Ashley Hill, into the role of wellness coordinator—a person whom employees might feel more comfortable taking concerns to than O’Brien or her director of operations. (Hill, who is Black, also pointed out that employees of color in particular may feel more comfortable raising difficult topics with her than with other, white managers.) “By creating those systems of support, it’s not just giving lip service,” O’Brien says.
When Maggie Foster, a barista at Little Tart for the past year and a half, suffered an on-the-job injury that required her to get physical therapy, she was initially anxious about what it might mean: In previous restaurant work, Foster found that managers could be skeptical about employees’ claims that they were sick or injured and that there might be repercussions, not always spoken—in the form of reduced hours, for example. Her managers at Little Tart, Foster says, “came up to me and they were like, We got you—don’t worry about it. You need to be healthy, and you need to get back up to speed, and you take as much time as you need to do that.” Between Covid and everything else, O’Brien says she’s never seen sick days taken as much as they have been these past couple of years; she also emphasizes to her staff that their sick time is meant to be used.
While benefits are still rare across the industry as a whole, O’Brien isn’t alone in offering them. Ticonderoga Club (co-owned by O’Brien’s husband, Paul Calvert) also began charging a fee to cover health insurance and sick days, and other restaurants have adopted other ways to promote employee well-being: Southern Belle offers paid vacation and now serves dinner only three nights a week, and BoccaLupo also cut back how many days a week it’s open.
Other members of the industry are figuring out what works for them. In the summer of 2020, Sarah Dodge helped open Perc in East Lake and found herself falling into a familiar pattern. “I kind of went back to being really burnt out,” says Dodge, who was previously the pastry chef at 8Arm. “It was not a good experience.” But if the stress exacerbated Dodge’s existing anxiety and depression, it was also clarifying. “I think we were all a little bit unhinged, and then there was a moment that was like, We’re all in this thing together,” she says. “We can’t control this thing, and all we can really do is make different choices.” A “calmness” took hold, and Dodge switched gears: These days, she runs Bread Is Good, a microbakery that sells wholesale to local markets and restaurants and offers classes and bread subscriptions to the public. She has more control of her own time away from the breakneck demands of restaurant work.
Shay Wright, meanwhile, landed in what feels like a better environment than the rooftop bar: Lucky’s Burger & Brew in Brookhaven, where she’s the lead bartender. It’s more laid-back, though short-staffed at the moment. Prioritizing mental health can be scary for vulnerable restaurant workers, but Wright says it’s imperative: “Let other bartenders, servers, or anyone working in a restaurant know that your mental health comes first. Everyone’s hiring. If you are genuinely unhappy where you are, go somewhere else.”
This article appears in our July 2022 issue.