Pandemic “an opportunity to restart and rethink how we approach things”
The restaurant industry has a reputation that pop culture has happily perpetuated. Gordon Ramsay presided over a kitchen in which perfection came at the cost of staff members’ feelings. And Anthony Bordain’s memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, made high stress and unhealthy responses to it seem like the secret sauce in any establishment’s success.
But such situations aren’t limited to must-see TV and New York Times bestsellers. In 2017, Mental Health America released a report that listed the food and beverage business among “unhealthy” industries, citing low wages, job insecurity, higher instances of alcohol abuse, poor employer-employee relations and more. Indeed, one 2019 survey catalogued myriad mental health concerns shared by industry members, including a stunning 62% who were afraid to even discuss matters with employers.
Steven Brochu (Culinary Arts '06), owner of MilkCrate in downtown Edmonton, doesn’t want to be one of those employers. In the media and during 15 years of professional cooking, he’s seen enough to know that mental health in the food and hospitality industry needs to be addressed.
What’s more, he feels that the pandemic has offered a unique chance to attempt to meet it. “What we were doing wasn’t working,” says Brochu. Now, “there is an opportunity for us to restart and rethink how we approach things.”
“[Here] is an opportunity for us to restart and rethink how we approach things.”
So, on June 1, 2020 – MilkCrate’s first birthday – Brochu and his staff launched MilkCrate Listens. “It’s designed to be a drop box for anyone who’s entering the industry or who has questions about anything when it comes to hospitality, the industry [and] mental health.”
That is, it’s meant to help undo a damaging and deep-seated irony: that restaurant staff members should be dedicated to hospitality despite depriving themselves of the very care and kindness that goes into serving others.
Provoking a conversation
In early 2020, Brochu (above) took a Mental Health First Aid course to boost his ability to look out for his staff. As an owner, he’d already learned CPR; expanding the scope of care made sense to him.
“There have been a lot of situations where what I learned in that course could have changed the outcome of a lot of situations for the better,” he says. He’s talking about blowups over things like staff mistakes, suppliers being late, guests being rude or people calling in sick. Or, normal restaurant stuff.
“There’s always time to think about your actions. Is what you’re about to say going to be helpful?”
This isn’t a new need, but it has gone largely unaddressed for at least two reasons. One is the pace of cultural change in the industry. Luisa Rizzi, a Culinary Arts instructor who also has Mental Health First Aid training, remembers a lack of empathy for those who expressed their feelings or concerns 20 years ago.
“In my day, you had the chance of losing your job, of burning bridges, of developing a bad reputation for yourself – especially as a female,” says Rizzi (Culinary Arts ’04).
“In my day, you had the chance of losing your job, of burning bridges, of developing a bad reputation."
The other reason is the pace of the industry itself, says Brochu. Pre-pandemic, when business was healthier, “We just didn’t have the time, and I don’t think we knew how to have these conversations.
“I think, unfortunately, enough people in our industry – chefs, people in front of house, back of house, dishwashers, drivers, porters – enough of them have suffered. Now everyone is getting a chance to take a pause.”
MilkCrate Listens seeks to capture thoughts and feelings expressed during this time of recovery and amplify them. Industry members are encouraged to reach out with questions and Brochu may answer based on how an issue might be handled at MilkCrate, or he’ll pass it along to other experts, including psychologists. If necessary, he’ll connect users with the proper mental health resources (they’re listed on the site, too).
With permission, Brochu will post questions and answers to MilkCrate’s social media accounts in hopes of getting people talking.
“It might be one person’s battle but it might be something that a lot of people can relate to,” says Rizzi, who addresses mental health issues in a talk she gives to classes at NAIT.
Rizzi sees MilkCrate Listens as further proof of a slow but steady shift underway in the Edmonton hospitality industry. Preceding Brochu’s initiative is In the Weeds, another organization advocating for positive mental health in the hospitality industry, and that was founded in 2019 (Brochu was involved in founding this, along with several other NAIT grads, when he worked at another restaurant).
“Building a community and allowing us to share in a non-judgemental environment is important, and I think with In the Weeds and MilkCrate Listens we’re showing those in need that we do care,” says Rizzi.
“What I’m hoping for is a more empathetic restaurant culture that can better personify what hospitality truly means,” says Brochu. Ultimately, he’d like to see priorities change. He describes them as currently descending from guest to ingredient to staff, likely driven by the business’s slim profit margins – often 5% or less.
Regardless, Brochu asks, “How can you put asparagus ahead of your chef de partie?”
Can’t do it alone
Brochu acknowledges that getting local industry members talking, and using services like MilkCrate Listens, will take persistence and patience. The stigma around mental health is lifting, but not lifted.
“Like anything with mental health, it does take time,” he says. “You can’t fix it overnight.”
Likely, he and his colleagues at organizations like In the Weeds cannot do it alone. That’s where customers have a role to play, especially during the pandemic. What can we do? Here are Brochu’s five tips.
- Be patient. These are strange and unsettling times to be servers, who have to trust that plates they’re collecting from diners aren’t biohazards. The stress of the job may get to them more than before the pandemic, and make being hospitable harder. “Everyone is just doing the best they can,” says Brochu. By staying mindful of the circumstances, customers can help servers do that.
- Be generous, but intentional. Should a restaurant note on their menu that diners can buy beers for the kitchen, don’t do it, says Brochu. “That’s a fun thing to do. It’s like you’re part of the party. But now what you’ve done is associate alcohol with a good job.” If you’re really keen, ask if there’s another, healthier activity to contribute to, such as a group gym membership or a yoga class. If not, you may have just planted an idea.
- “Get ready to start paying more,” says Brochu. Previously thin margins have gone see-through thanks to the pandemic, and they’re unlikely to fatten any time soon. To lessen stress on owners, and therefore employees, prices will likely have to rise. “[If] I’m at a place where 20 people worked really hard to make this one thing for me, I need to be OK with spending 10 more dollars on it. That’s something that the entire industry needs to start waking up to.”
- Reach out. If you frequent a particular spot, just show you care. Ask staff how they’re coping, send a positive email to the chef or manager afterward. “Get to know the people who cook for you and take care of you for three hours,” says Brochu.
- Be respectfully critical. “It’s absolutely OK to hold people accountable for a not good experience,” says Brochu. “Just don’t be hurtful … as much fun as it is to tweet a negative photo and get those sweet, sweet dopamine hits.” Send a private message instead. “I can guarantee you’re going to get way better service from a polite email expressing concern than a [negative] tweet.”