Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Restaurant jobs have always been difficult, but the mental stress has gotten worse during the pandemic as restaurants closed or cut hours — or became a ground zero for the fight over mask-wearing.
“It is totally nerve-wracking sometimes, because all of my tables I’m interacting with aren’t wearing their masks,” says 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 she’s not just worrying about her own health.
“I’m more nervous about my partner. He disabled. He doesn’t have the greatest immune system,” she says.
Perri’s not alone when it comes to feeling anxious and stressed about her restaurant work. After the initial shutdown, French 75 was having problems finding employees when it reopened. So were other restaurants.
“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. The survey went out to employees of all 10. Bonanno says these jobs offer competitive pay and good health insurance, but the mental health benefits aren’t very good.
“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 says.
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 says. “It’s a pretty big leap of faith.”
It took a little while to figure out what exactly employees wanted and what would be most helpful. Focus groups began in summer of 2021 and they made a hire in October of 2021.
So to their menu of restaurant workers, which already included chef, bartender, and server, they added a new and unusual role: wellness director.
Qiana Torres Flores, a licensed professional counselor, got the job. She’d previously worked one-on-one with clients, and in community