John Hinman remembers the first Culinary Hospitality Outreach & Wellness meeting (CHOW) meeting well. That’s not only because it happened just three days after Anthony Bourdain’s 2018 suicide, or because it drew a crowd of around 40 people (he’d been wondering if he and co-founder Alex Palmerton would be the only people there), or because it lasted four hours. He remembers a woman spending those four hours silently knitting before she laid down her needles and outlined her plan to kill herself that evening. “I’d never been in a room with that much truth going on,” he recalls.
Hinman, a veteran of the Denver and Boulder restaurant scene before he opened a wholesale operation, Hinman’s Bakery, started CHOW with Palmerton after giving several interviews in which he spoke very candidly about his sobriety and the toll restaurant life had taken on him. And while he was happy to continue speaking about his experience, he thought, “I don’t want another ‘attaboy.'” He wanted to do something concrete.
That’s how CHOW began. Two years later, industry folks are in a situation they never imagined. The depression, anxiety, and addiction that often accompany crazy hours and a stressful workplace have been compounded by a tiny virus; hairline fractures in the system have become gaping cracks. With most restaurant workers un- or underinsured—and un- or underemployed due to shutdowns, closings, and capacity restrictions—CHOW is changing to try and meet the needs of hospitality folks even as they shift underfoot.
Erin Boyle worked in restaurants for more than 15 years before she started training people with mental illness in culinary vocational skills at Mental Health Partners, a mental health and substance use care facility with four locations in Boulder county. She heard Hinman’s presentation at last summer’s Slow Food Nations and reached out to him (she admits “stalked” is a better term) in hopes of starting a Boulder chapter. “I was attracted to the group because I knew there were so many issues with people in the industry,” she says. “What I didn’t realize until I’d been going to meetings for a few months was how meaningful the sense of community is. There was a piece missing from my normal community.”
The Boulder chapter launched in December 2019, had two meetings, and then COVID-19 overran the country’s newsfeeds, jobs, and consciousness. Meetings moved to Zoom—three times a week for a while, though the group has since scaled back to weekly virtual meetings—and both Hinman and Boyle say post-COVID CHOW is a different animal than it was nine months ago. Before the pandemic, says Hinman, “There was a lot of talk of suicide. There was lots of discussion about striving for pie-in-the-sky ideals and peoples’ issues not living up to them.” But he thinks the pandemic put things into perspective: “A lot of people are asking, ‘What the hell am I doing with myself? Why am I doing this to myself?'” Paradoxically, the meetings are now lighter, more like an after-shift hangout.
Boyle agrees. “It’s not like AA,” she says. “We don’t sit around talking about who we’ve wronged. We talk about what’s going on, why COVID sucks. My problems don’t change, but the burden is a little lighter.” The organization has begun bringing in guest speakers on a variety of topics (fear of success, gratitude, and resentment are a few) and structuring meetings around social activities like lunch in hopes of making it more accessible to new members. “It’s not so dark,” says Hinman. “These conversations we’re having, we’re leaving with some sort of resolution.”
Hinman has long wanted to connect people with the mental health resources they need. Part of the reason CHOW’s been able to alter they way it does things is its relationship with Khesed Wellness, a therapeutic practice that provides counseling to people with no or little insurance coverage. Like Boyle, founder/CEO Heather Lundy connected with Hinman about six months before the coronavirus emerged. “We have worked so well as a tag team,” says Lundy. “We both stay in our lanes: CHOW does weekly support, Khesed does outpatient care. It only works if we come together. This is an industry that has developed a lot of mistrust around health care in general, but…the roadblocks are being eliminated.”
From Lundy’s perspective, the realities of being a front-line worker with reduced income during the pandemic have broken down the already vulnerable coping strategies common in the industry and prompted a greater number of hospitality workers to seek care. So Lundy and Khesed began a displaced worker pro bono program, which has provided more than 800 free therapy sessions to workers who have lost income or jobs due to the pandemic, and is still accepting clients.
In fact, Khesed recently received a $10,000 grant specifically to provide more sessions to restaurant and bar workers. Affected employees can contact the practice and identify themselves as a displaced hospitality worker. Within two days, they’ll receive a 30-minute phone consultation, then be assigned a therapist and receive 12 free one-hour sessions. After that, sessions are just $60 (the starting hourly rate for Colorado therapists is around $150). Prior to the pandemic, counselors operated in 13 locations between Boulder and Colorado Springs; now, all appointments are conducted remotely, so services are available statewide. And as Lundy plans to add another nine therapists to her payroll by January, her ultimate goal is to provide statewide, in-person care. The organization has also started a corporate benefit program, which allows employers to cover mental health services with Khesed; Culinary Creative restaurant group (which owns four restaurants in Denver and has consulted on spots in Aspen and New Orleans) has just signed on.
Lundy points out that restaurant owners are realizing “when the whole employee comes awake then the restaurant can thrive. What has encouraged me post-COVID is how much employers are becoming the voice for this, how they advocating for their staff. That is the change.”
What’s your experience been seeking out (or trying to provide) mental health support in the industry? Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to firstname.lastname@example.org.