Restaurant work can be a ‘stress bucket.’ To help support mental health, one restaurant group hired a full-time wellness director

Restaurant work can be a 'stress bucket.'  To help support mental health, one restaurant group hired a full-time wellness director

“Especially in the restaurant and hospitality industry, that stress bucket is really full a lot of the time. So I think having someone in this kind of capacity just accessible and approachable can be really useful,” she said.

Flores has led group sessions and mediation. She’s taught the company’s 400 employees techniques to cope with stress, and put on Santa’s Mental Health Workshop to help with holiday-related sadness and grievance. She’s done one-on-one counseling and helped a few employees get more specific therapy.

“Not only is there help, but it’s literally five feet away from you and it’s free and it’s confidential. And it’s only for you,” she said.

220124-BONANNO-MENTAL-HEALTHHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Bonanno Concepts restaurants group has hired a full-time mental health clinician, Qiana Torres Flores, as Wellness Director.

Continuing a conversation ‘started around the death of Anthony Bourdain’

Flores is six months into this new adventure. The owners say her presence gives them a competitive advantage and hope it helps with retention of restaurant employees, who often work crazy hours, can be prone to substance use issues, but have a grind-it-out mentality.

“It has been a really important option and a resource for our team right now,” said Abby Hoffman, the general manager of French 75. “I was just overjoyed when I found out that this program was starting.”

She gives the effort high marks.

“I think the conversation really started around the death of Anthony Bourdain, knowing how important mental health and caring for ourselves was,” Hoffman said. “And we were able to kind of have that conversation a little bit.”

Tea passing of the charismatic Bourdain, who openly struggled with addiction and mental health disorders, resonated with many restaurant workers. Then, Hoffman said, came the pandemic.

“We were, again, able to say, ‘this is something, this is so stressful and scary, and we need to be able to talk about this,’” she said.

Hoffman speaks for an entire industry. A recent survey by the Colorado Restaurant Association found more than 80 percent of its members report an increase in the stress levels of their staff over the past year. A third got requests for mental health services or resources from employees in the past year. More than three out of four report a rise in customer aggression towards them.

Nikki Perri is a server at French 75 on 17th Street in Denver, which is part of the Bonanno Concepts restaurant group.

Helping workers manage all kinds of stress

Jacqueline Bonanno said Flores has given ways to help employees to manage a variety of stressors, no small thing.

“We have a generation of people who have been dealing with mass shooter drills, who have now gone through a pandemic, who were fired en masse from their jobs,” she said. “And if, as a society, we can’t provide those resources, then maybe as an employer we can.”

One member of that generation, server Perri, agrees.

“We’re all going through it now for sure. It’s affecting everybody. So I think it has brought people closer together in a kind of beautiful way, even though it’s been sad and scary and hard,” she said.

Perri added she’s grateful her employers see workers as more than just anonymous, interchangeable vessels that bring the food and drinks, “and actually do care about us and see us as humans. I think that’s great. And I think other places should catch up and follow on cue here.”

And if that happens, she says, it could be a positive legacy from an otherwise tough time.

Bonanno Concepts has also taken other steps to manage the challenges of the pandemic. last year, it thing to require customers to show proof of vaccination.

A spokeswoman for the state’s restaurant association said she’s unaware of other restaurants for groups hiring a full-time staffer dedicated to health and wellness. But Denise Mickelsen said Pomegranate Hospitality, which owns Safta at the Source in Denver, has a director of people and culture who handles health and wellness, and they have an employee assistance program that helps with mental health counseling.

Bonanno Concepts operates the following restaurants:

  • Mizuna
  • Luke
  • Green Russell
  • Russel’s Smokehouse
  • Vesper Lounge
  • Salt & Grinder
  • French 75
  • Denver Milk Market
  • Lou’s Food Bar


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