As restaurant owners and operators approach almost a full year of running their businesses during COVID-19, it is crucial to take a look at the practices that have helped keep many small, independently-owned restaurants alive — practices that are important to keep post-pandemic.
Since March 2020, the focus on health and safety has been one key practice for restaurateurs. We’ve examined and optimized what it looks like to run a safe restaurant during a global pandemic, from sanitizing and providing to-go/curbside pickup options, to requiring face coverings and distancing tables or even moving them outdoors.
But there is one component often overlooked: mental health.
Photo; Hunter Evans
In hospitality, most of our attention is given to the guest, but a good customer experience all stems from our staff — and we need to take care of our staff, so they can take care of others. The need to support the mental health and well-being of restaurant employees has been magnified during the pandemic, and it is a practice that will help evolve the industry even further if it is kept in a post-pandemic world.
Providing great customer service is what keeps people coming back to their favorite restaurants time and time again. When a guest knows they will be taken care of by our staff, it creates a great experience by fostering a welcoming environment of trust where they can relax with family and friends, explore new cuisine or celebrate a special occasion.
However, the pressures of the world today — COVID-19, job instability in our industry, a fluctuating economy and more — can weigh heavy on a server’s mind. The very act of coming into work, even when all safety measures are taken, could be a cause for anxiety.
When restaurant staff doesn’t feel taken care of, how can we expect them to take care of our guests?
To reach our goal of a hospitable atmosphere for guests, as operators and chefs, the first step is to focus on the mental health and well-being of our front- and back-of-house staff members. Putting an emphasis on these practices will ultimately make for a better, stronger team that feels supported and excited about coming to work — creating that amazing guest experience.
Destigmatize mental health.
Easy ways to begin destigmatizing mental health in the workplace include offering mental health days, sitting down with an employee and listening, implementing programs like therapy reimbursement or gym reimbursement, and empowering employees to truly act as a team.
In the restaurant industry, asking for a day off can be scary. No one wants to lose a shift or be thought of as lazy. Mental health days, however, can prevent burnout by giving employees a much-needed break or chance to decompress.
Going to therapy can be scary, too, but we can put an end to the stigma associated with seeking mental help simply by talking about it more. For example, at my restaurant, Elvie’s, in Jackson, Miss., we make it clear that we support our staff and their choices in seeking mental healthcare, so no one has to worry about judgment or losing their job. If a staff member asks for help, we will always try to find a solution, such as reimbursement for therapy appointments. At Elvie’s, there is no shame in requesting a mental health day or having to cut your shift short to make a session.
Take a break.
Other ways restaurant owners can implement well-being practices is by closing the restaurant for one week out of the year to allow everyone on staff to rest and recharge. We choose to do this the first week of January. This year, it worked out great because it also allowed everyone to quarantine after celebrating the holidays with family and friends.
Make physical wellness accessible.
Another way to support mental health is by supporting physical wellness, too. Work with local gyms to see what type of membership deal would be available for employees, or reimburse the membership partially or completely if possible.
We see this benefit all the time in corporate companies, and for a good reason: paying for gym memberships will encourage staff members to exercise, which is proven to lead to improved overall mental health.
Knowing that this may not be possible on a budget where margins are already razor thin, group classes are another great, less expensive, avenue to explore. For example, at Elvie’s, we will sometimes host a yoga class at the restaurant for those wanting exercise, or an hour to meditate and refocus. Personally, yoga has been a huge relief to me from standing on my feet all day, hunching over cutting boards.
Reinforce the “family” culture.
The last recommendation for improving employee well-being is to empower every staff member to act as a part of the team.
This “family” mentality will prevent anyone from feeling isolated, alone or disrespected. One way to do this is with a split-tips system. At Elvie’s, we use a tip pool, which was not popular at first, but taught the team that everyone has to pull weight, be proud of their work and respect each other.
Even something as simple as having a staff meal together once a week would go a long way.
Build in support.
Another way to build your team is to hire folks for leadership positions who have a passion for supporting others — or as we call it in Jackson, a passion for Southern hospitality. Which is why, despite the recent struggles in the restaurant industry, we decided to invest in a maître d’ for our dining room.
We wanted to give front-of-house staff a helping hand with attention to detail in the dining room, and chose someone with a genuine, positive desire for serving others. Our maître d’, Eric Henderson, ensures that the entire restaurant is working as a team, helping each other out when needed and giving the guests the best experience possible.
When restaurant owners implement well-being programs like the ones outlined above, they are making a conscious decision to better their restaurant by bettering their employees. Establishing mental and physical health programs and building that team mentality will encourage employees to seek help should they need it, and to support and respect each other no matter what struggles they are facing.
With so many of us dealing with a multitude of stress due to COVID-19, taking care of your people so they can take care of your guests is more important now than ever before. But as the months go on, let us not forget this valuable lesson in improving employee well-being and let us continue to extend the same hospitality to staff as we do to guests, creating a better restaurant experience for everyone.
Hunter Evans is the owner and executive chef of Elvie’s in Jackson, Miss., which offers a modern, Southern take on classic French cuisine.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News or Restaurant Hospitality.