Mental health and substance abuse were two big issues concerning members of the hospitality industry before the novel coronavirus ever entered our lexicon. Those service workers are at greater risk for depression, sleep problems, and stress than non-tipped workers, and food-and-beverage employees have the highest rate of addiction of any industry. With the added stress, anxiety, and financial insecurity that comes with shutdowns and rapidly rising unemployment, culinary workers are struggling even more than most. But there are many from those ranks in Colorado who are also rising up against the challenges of the current moment, helping each other in new and creative ways.

“The hospitality industry has always been the first responders—during 9/11, hurricanes—and we’re still first responders,” says John Hinman, owner of legendary pie-centric Hinman’s Bakery. He and food writer Alexandra Palmerton co-founded a nonprofit organization called CHOW (Culinary Hospitality Outreach & Wellness) that is making a difference for its community. CHOW’s mission is to help industry folks find support and discuss problems they’re facing. It started with Hinman’s own struggles with addiction and feelings of hopelessness; hearing others share their stories helped him turn things around. “I took those skills I learned getting sober and brought them to our restaurant community,” Hinman says. “CHOW is creating a safe place for people to take a breath for a minute, to come and say, ‘Hey, I’m hurting.’ And that’s OK,” he says.

Before the COVID-19 restaurant closures, CHOW hosted weekly in-person meetings; it has since increased that outreach to three virtual opportunities for support and connection each week. The group is also working with Operation Family Meal to provide free food to out-of-work industry employees and has partnered with Heather Lundy Nelson of Khesed Wellness to help workers receive free counseling sessions. “People are coming and sharing, and it’s been really cool. We talk about our struggles, anything we’re dealing with, stress—really just encouraging each other,” Hinman says.

Others in the Colorado hospitality industry are supporting local employees, too. Josh Wolkon’s Secret Sauce restaurant group (Vesta, Steuben’s Food Service, and Ace Eat Serve) has made employee wellness a priority since day one. For 15 years, Wolkon has put company resources into a wellness program focused on healthy ways to combat the stress, late-night culture, and the common overindulgences of bar and restaurant life. Services includes hypnotherapist sessions, smoking cessation, annual cleanses, sober weeks, and gym memberships. “As an employer in this industry in particular, you see a lot of people go the wrong way,” Wolkon says. “I hope the people working for us are healthier, happier, and better people when they leave us. That’s the intention of the program.”

After the mandated dine-in restaurant closure in mid-March, Wolkon let go of most of his staff, but he kept his employees’ health insurance active through April; provided free daily meals and hosted weekly farmers’ markets where they could pick up free produce; and encouraged those who needed it to take advantage of local mental health resources like those offered by CHOW. “Even coming by Steuben’s to pick up a meal and see a familiar face has been important to some staff, especially those living alone and in need of some human connection,” he says.

The Big Red F Restaurant Group (Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, Lola Coastal Mexican, the Post Brewing Company, and others) got involved with CHOW early on. The company’s employee assistance program also helps its workers with everything from childcare to mental health counseling. Employees can use the program for a minimum of three free therapy sessions to assist with whatever they’re going through.

The Colorado Restaurant Association has made sharing mental health resources a priority during this time as well, hosting a webinar on managing anxiety and publishing emotional support call lines for those who need it.

Death & Co.’s head bartender Alex Jump recently co-founded Focus on Health to help hospitality workers take care of themselves, mentally and physically. The group provides health and wellness education, programming, and outreach, sharing content like the Healthtender’s weekly exercises, the Glow Club’s meditation classes, and I Heard You’s one-on-one online support sessions. Plus, this Friday, May 15, at 2 p.m., Jump will demonstrate how to make a gin fizz on Girls Nite In Online, a free platform that invites unemployed or underemployed fitness instructors, chefs, mixologists, hairdressers, and more to present 30-minute Zoom workshops. Voluntary donations go to the workshop leader via a virtual tip jar, but all tips earned during Jump’s session will benefit Focus on Health.

Restaurant workers looking for camaraderie and connection during this pandemic and beyond are welcome to join Focus on Health’s community and CHOW’s Zoom meetings on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (meeting links are posted on CHOW’s Facebook page).

Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.