Mental Health Takes The Spotlight In Hospitality Business

How restaurant owners are prioritizing it through the pandemic

There are some ways to quantify what the restaurant business has lost in the past year: 110,000 bars and restaurants closed; 2.5 million jobs lost. While workers have fought for their jobs and businesses, they've also endured a stealth battle in trying to protect their mental health. Though the emotional component is hard to quantify in this year of unprecedented loss, it's important to acknowledge, as the industry attempts to rebuild.

In Los Angeles, some restaurateurs have become more vocal about the emotional toll of the pandemic. "It's almost like the mental health component has been swept under the rug, as if it should have been obvious what to do," says Ashley Wells, co-owner of All Time in Los Feliz. "But the decision-makers haven't had a clear message from day one, and that lack of direction creates so much fear and anxiety," she says. 

Wells and her co-owner and husband have been vocal on Instagram about the uncertainty and exhaustion of keeping their business afloat. They say in the last year, they've had countless conversations with their staff about physical and mental safety — discussions that have evolved frequently as local regulations continue to change, often without warning. 

"We haven't made any decisions about how to proceed or announced anything publicly until we've talked to everyone and understood their comfort level," says Wells, who recently wrote an op-ed explaining why All-Time won't be opening for dine-in service any time soon. They also provided free on-site Covid testing for all staff twice a week, in the attempt to make the work environment feel safer. "We don't want to put our staff in the position of choosing between their safety and a paycheck. The bottom line is that we're in the business of caring for people, and we can't do that if our staff isn't cared for," she says.

Many restaurants have shifted their hours and offerings, often in an attempt to lighten the physical and mental burden on individual employees. "We had a tiny team working nonstop seven days a week, and we were all so wrecked," says Wells. They're currently open five days a week. "It was tough because we didn't want to let the neighborhood down or hurt the business, but I'm glad we did it because it gave us mandated rest," she says. 

"You have to be more flexible during a pandemic with how you run the business and take people's personal lives into account," says Lien Ta, co-owner of All Day Baby in Silver Lake. "We're all struggling to deal with this. I'm not always put-together at all. It's been a challenging balance, to figure out how to still be operationally effective and personally lenient," she says. It requires, she says, a level of sensitivity and empathy that hasn't always been prioritized in the service industry. 

Ta has also tried to keep a dialogue with her staff about their comfort level coming to work, especially as local restrictions ease up. Although (as its name implies) All Day Baby opened as an all-day comfort food concept, they too were forced to reduce their hours and operations months ago. "We just started talking about extending our hours again, and what that might look like," she says. "I leave those questions open-ended, so they have time to digest and we can talk about it when they're ready."   

Yang's Kitchen, a Taiwanese restaurant in Alhambra, had barely been open for six months when the virus hit. They slashed the most labor-intensive dishes from their menu and pivoted to a few signature items, as well as grocery and pantry items. Earlier this month, co-owners Chris Yang and Maggie Ho announced a temporary hiatus, writing on Instagram that "We want to make some big changes at the restaurant to set ourselves up for a more sustainable future ... Our team has been pushing hard throughout the pandemic and we think it's the right time for us to take a pause and reflect on what we need to do going forward."

Yang says that while he's grateful to have stayed busy for the last few months, the piecemeal fashion he's built his business up isn't efficient or profitable. "Our team has been working so hard, but it's not sustainable, so we need to reevaluate how to make a better system," he says.

The break comes at a point where his small staff, many of whom have been working nonstop for the past year, need some rest. "A lot of people want to say that everything is OK and they can keep going, but maybe they really need a break. Every day we observe and have conversations, but ultimately it's on us as owners to help our employees get the time off they need," says Yang. "When you have good staff, they don't want to let you down, but you don't want to burn them to the ground, either." 

Things continue to change in California: Restaurant workers were recently declared eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, and local regulations about reopening for indoor dining may soon follow. With those changes come plenty more uncertainty. "It's scary, it's new, it's unprecedented, and we expect people to have questions," says Wells. Both her and Ta say they've put together resources for their staff about the vaccine specifically, and Wells had a manager make vaccine appointments for any staff who wanted it. (Yang's Kitchen, too, posted a candid note when their staff became eligible.) 

The future remains unclear. For many operators, there's a balance between the practical and the emotional when it comes to planning next steps — making improvements to the physical and logistical operations of a restaurant, and ensuring there's emotional buy-in from all parties. "It will take time to formulate that plan," says Wells. "But when we do reopen, it will be totally dialed in, grand, and exciting — the empirical definition of what hospitality is."