Queen's English co-owner Sarah Thompson and server Alain Daniel Credit: Darrow Montgomery

What if I told you a D.C. company is footing the bill for mental health counseling for all of its employees—and their families? That alone would be impressive. Now consider the company is a locally based restaurant group, and let the shock sink in.

The hospitality industry lags behind other employment sectors when it comes to benefits such as health insurance and paid time off. Ask owners why, and they’ll tell you restaurants operate on thin profit margins, diners reject price hikes, and part-timers typically aren’t eligible for benefits packages.

Then there’s the stubborn stigma that the restaurant industry is a field for people who are just passing through. This notion places the blame on “fickle” employees instead of on the employers who have played a role in creating atmospheres where it can be tough to stick around. 

Time away during the pandemic made clear to restaurant workers that their jobs take a toll on their health, their relationships, and their ability to save for the future. Some left the District or the industry in the dust, creating a staffing crisis

Owners know they can no longer delay improving their work cultures or the alarming trend of people fleeing the industry will continue. Some have been implementing new perks and benefits in recent weeks to attract, retain, and even convince would-be workers that a restaurant job can be a career

Restaurant groups report that they can better afford introducing boutique perks such as therapy or financial advising while small stand-alone restaurants say they’re working within their means to provide better training, nurturing work cultures, and time off. Workers, meanwhile, are after better pay, impactful benefits, and supportive work environments where they don’t feel dispensable.

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When Farmers Restaurant Group partnered with Talkspace, it was to walk the walk. “We’ve always been a workplace that talks about mental health,” says co-founder Dan Simons. His restaurants include five locations of Founding Farmers. “We tell people from day one orientation, ‘Don’t leave your problems at home,’” he says. Providing text and video counseling for free to full-time and part-time employees and people in their households “systemizes that culture.” 

Talkspace confirms FRG is the first full-service restaurant group to partner with them. Kids who are 13 and older can participate. “I’m a parent so I understand that you really can only be as happy as your unhappiest child,” Simons says.

Julie Sharkey, FRG’s director of marketing operations, was one of the first to try Talkspace after the program launched Aug. 25. A few dozen others have joined since. “I believe in text therapy for stress management,” she says. “It’s great to have a mental health outlet that’s not family, friends, or coworkers.” 

Simons thinks smaller restaurant groups and individual restaurants will be able to afford similar counseling because there’s “a ton of capital rushing into the space.” Mobile, text-based therapy companies will need customers. Talkspace is a $40,000 annual expense, but to Simons it’s invaluable. He says he’s had an employee die by suicide. “You can’t afford not to do it,” he says. 

City Paper asked La Jambe Executive Chef D’Angelo Mobley about FRG’s latest move. “That’s beautiful to hear they make something like that,” he says. “A lot of the guys who work in the back come from rough backgrounds. Coming into such a volatile environment, they need it by the end of the shift. I could use it myself.”

From a business perspective, Simons thinks Talkspace will pay off. “What is your productivity loss based on mental health struggles of your employees?” he asks. “What’s your financial loss based on days of missed work? To raw capitalists, this is still an investment. It’s creating value, maybe not in a 30-day window, but over six months.” 

Simons doesn’t see investing in benefits and raising pay as mutually exclusive. FRG’s purchasing power means it can pay much less for Talkspace than any individual could on their own. And, he says, FRG is simultaneously “driving up wages.” They say they pay their non-tipped hourly workers $16 to $20 per hour, for example. (FRG settled a $1.49 million class action lawsuit for labor violations in 2018.)

Another small restaurant group is bringing financial planning to its full-time and part-time employees at its five Cuba Libre locations, including one in Penn Quarter, starting this week. The new benefit grants workers access to Wealth Steps—an online wealth learning system—and counseling with financial advisor Olivia Allen. She specializes in supporting hospitality employees because she once was one. 

“They work so hard for every dollar they make, if there’s a way to help them be more financially prepared we’d love to do that,” says Cuba Libre HR Director Jackie Klee. Workers can learn about insurance and debt consolidation. Two managers going through significant life changes vetted it and recommended it to others, according to Klee. One is expecting a baby and another is sending a child off to college.

Employees pay nothing, nor does Cuba Libre. The restaurant’s CEO Barry Gutin met Allen through his work with a nonprofit that aids restaurant workers with children who fall on hard times. Allen subsequently volunteered to help. “The investment is from a time perspective,” Klee says. “[Allen] is donating her time and I’m the liaison on the inside.” 

Time will reveal if Klee and Allen can keep up if hundreds of employees show interest, but the program demonstrates what can happen when owners leverage their personal networks to make their businesses better places to work.

Fast-growing local restaurant group KNEAD Hospitality + Design will roll out a “4Days@Work” initiative for midlevel managers as soon as one of its restaurants, such as Succotash or Mi Vida, is fully staffed. The scheduling strategy asks them to work four 12-hour days in the restaurant and a fifth at home where they can complete administrative duties they weren’t able to finish on site. Assistant general managers and sous-chefs will be eligible to participate. The goal, KNEAD co-founder Jason Berry says, is for staff to experience a taste of the “remote work lifestyle” and maybe even enjoy three days off. 

KNEAD considers 4Days@Work a recruitment tool to “dislodge some great people working their tails off somewhere else” and a way to prevent managers from leaving with their institutional knowledge. “What happens when a regular guest comes in and doesn’t see someone they know?” Berry asks. “They’ll think, Why is someone sitting at my table? New people didn’t know. All that goes away when you lose people.” 

He believes in a formula: happy managers, happy staff, happy guests. “A happy guest returns more often,” Berry says. “Can I quantify those dollars? Probably not. Can I year-over-year look at sales increases? Sure.” Still, Berry was nervous approaching investors. He estimates the annual cost of adding two managers and a chef to make testing 4Days@Work possible is roughly $250,000. “One of our biggest investors, who I thought would be unhappy, said, ‘This sounds like a good idea,’” Berry says. “He recognizes that the world is changing.” 

A manager who works for a large restaurant group in D.C. heard Berry talking about 4Days@Work on the news. He has 22 years of experience in the industry and asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to speak on behalf of his company. We’ll call him Geoff. “It’s kind of revolutionary,” he says. “We’re expected to work five days. But it’s way more than 40 hours. Some restaurant groups expect you to work a sixth day if someone calls out. That’s untenable. A lot of places have lost key people because there’s no emphasis on work-life balance.” 

Berry has been there. “I was a general manager before,” he says. “I worked all the time. I worked nights and weekends. I made it work because I didn’t have kids and I had an understanding partner. A lot of people have child care issues. They have lives. They want work to be part of life, not the focus.”

He hopes his approach wins him experienced professionals such as Geoff. “My whole life I’ve heard money isn’t the most important thing,” he says. “People quit people, not companies.” 

Photo of Kapri Robinson by Darrow Montgomery/file Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

Kapri Robinson, who bartends at Allegory and recently co-launched the Soul Palate Podcast, agrees to some extent. “We all want more money,” she says. “But understanding that other things also amount to wellness and wealth is very important. If I can have someone look at my finances or have someone invest in my mental health, that balances itself. I’m one of those people where working is not always about the money. For me, it’s about how I am mentally. How I’m feeling physically. I can get more pay, but at the end of the day, what does more pay look like?”

A server at Bresca who’s changing jobs soon has a different take. “People don’t come to work for the love of a job or the [food and wine] knowledge you get,” Naderia Wynn says. She was part of a group of employees who quit jobs at Del Mar after penning a letter to owner Fabio Trabocchi demanding changes. “I go to work to earn currency for goods and services. I don’t think employers should forget that. If you don’t have competitive pay to back the bells and whistles and perks you’re giving, then what’s the point?” 

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The small restaurants that make up the majority of the District’s dining scene have to get scrappy to upgrade their work culture and coax new employees through the door because they don’t have the purchasing power Simons describes and might not have a deep bench of investors like KNEAD, which has shown proof of concept many times over. 

Muchas Gracias! chef and owner Christian Irabién offers professional development opportunities to his all-immigrant team of 11. He holds intermittent workshops on days the restaurant is closed to discuss obstacles to growth and to set goals. “Whether a lack of resources, time, or staff, there’s never time for any of that,” he says. “Even the best places, you get in there and it’s day two and you’re in the shit and you’re taking a section or you’re on the line.”

Irabién is trying to formalize his trainings on leadership, communication, and other soft skills. He hopes other restaurants can replicate his “Hospitality Humans” curriculum. “Just because it was hard for me doesn’t mean it has to be hard for everyone else,” he says. “Maybe we can pave the way for an easier upbringing of young staff.”

According to him, it’s working. “Ofelia, our kitchen manager, came to us as a prep and line cook and she’s now in charge of the kitchen,” Irabién says. Managing others, doing inventory, and creating recipes comes with a pay raise. “The people who have stepped up and said ‘I want to try this’ have taken strides.” 

Robinson looks for employers like Irabién who value education. “Just some kind of investment to say, ‘I want you to grow to your best ability in this establishment,’” she says. In addition to on-the-job training, that means covering tuition for courses, entry fees for competitions, and field trip costs. There’s something in it for the business. “Anything that helps you become more of an expert allows you to up that price.”

Free time is coveted too. Recognizing this, Bammy’s co-owners Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison close their restaurant on Mondays and Tuesdays to give employees two consecutive days off. “Even in a day and age where staffing is tight and I’d love to staff people edge-to-edge to make sure the restaurant stays afloat, we are both of the mind that time off is by far one of the most important things in the industry,” Morgan says.

Queen’s English takes a similar approach by closing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The restaurant pulled off something special in August: Co-owners Sarah Thompson and Chef Henji Cheung closed for the month after paying their dozen employees in advance. “Go to the beach, hang out, and don’t worry about rent and bills,” Thompson says. “That’s what people get when they have a career and it shouldn’t be different because they’re selling food instead of bonds.”

Thompson cut salaried employees their usual checks and paid hourly workers $18 an hour for four simulated 40-hour work weeks. “Henji showed me how much money it would be, but after the year and a half we’ve had, we needed to do it,” she says. Staff retention is the goal. “I don’t want to have a revolving door. I want to work with them for the rest of the lease,” Thompson says. “It takes some sacrifices, but it’s taxing to go through so many personalities and training.”

Alain Daniel has 30 years of experience in the industry and has been serving at Queen’s English for almost four months. He calls the owners “the nicest most genuine people” he’s ever worked for by far. “A restaurant can offer many benefits,” he says. “The best one is actually caring for your employees. If the owners care about their employees’ well-being, like this one, it should be easy to tell.” 

He visited Daytona Beach, Florida, in August. “It was my first paid vacation while waiting tables,” he says. “I haven’t had a vacation in years really.” He thinks his industry colleagues would be satisfied with a month off, even if they weren’t compensated. Forced closures alleviate a common problem in understaffed restaurants where employees can’t take the vacation they were promised. 

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Daniel, Wynn, Robinson, Geoff, and Mobley tell City Paper that health insurance is among the benefits they seek and value most. D.C.’s smaller restaurants don’t always employ enough people to trigger benefit offerings. (Employers who are required to offer benefits but don’t face a tax penalty.) Hospitality workers often go without coverage or pay out of pocket.

This and other factors stop local residents from staying in the industry later in life. “As we are getting older and some of us are starting families, a lot of restaurants still don’t offer any sort of parental leave,” Geoff says. “That’s a big one people are considering now.”

Geoff echoes others in saying the biggest challenge for owners and managers is keeping talent. “The way you do it is by having a strong culture in your restaurant,” he says. “You hold onto your hourlies by being in the trenches with them. Show them you’re going to do everything you’re telling them to do.” 

Mobley agrees. “Some of the roles in restaurants aren’t the most glitzy jobs,” he says. “You have to put yourself in some people’s shoes to understand their grievances.” The owner of La Jambe, Anastasia Mori, sets an example Mobley hopes others emulate. “She comes in and works like she’s the dishwasher. She washes dishes, folds towels, cleans silverware, whatever needs to get done,” Mobley says. “We recognize that and we don’t let her do anything because we know she’s willing.”

The chef is pleased angry kitchens are becoming things of the past. “You don’t have to be an asshole for people to get their jobs done,” he says. “If people have healthier work environments, you will have less callouts and walkouts. Show someone how to do something and if they don’t get it show them again.” 

Not being an asshole is free.   

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