The Two Pandemics of the Restaurant Industry

The restaurant industry is riddle with misfits. The addicts who can’t seem to shake their demons, the narcissist who needs constant validation, the brokenhearted who seek comfort in caring for others. Then there are the poor, who try to work their way out of poverty and of course, the hungry, who are eager to prove that they are the best chef around. We all enter this industry because we need it, it satisfies a craving that eats away at our souls. In the industry we find family, albeit a broken one but through hard work and sacrifice we forge the pieces back together to find acceptance.

When I was in 4th grade we had an assignment to write a short story about something that happened to us. Most of the class wrote about funny things or the times they had an amazing vacation at Disney World. I wrote about sleeping in a hallway outside the apartment where we were evicted from.

We were poor. My mother was a single mom who worked to provide me with food and the best life she could. I turned to food as both a drug and a cure to my misery. As soon as I could get a job, I was working as a dishwasher at a local sub shop. I saved enough money to help out with bills but also buy the mountain bike I wanted. As the years went on, the restaurant industry became my drug dealer. It gave me just enough of a payoff to keep coming back. From my days as a dishwasher to earning my first chef jacket and going on to open my first restaurant, I have been blessed to call the restaurant business, which we simply call, “The Industry,” my profession.

In the industry, we discover that chaos lies in us all. We learn to wield this chaos, or it consumes us, ironically, with the very things that we consume. Our vices turn into virtues or we end up never achieving our goals. We drown these sorrows in shift beers at the end of another double shift looking around at the newbies whose ambitions are chalked up to inexperience. War stories of nights in the weeds become our legends and the ghosts of our former selves haunts the old houses in which we’ve worked.

We are the industry, an island of misfit toys doomed to wander various houses, servants of the public overlooking our own needs. We are the full-time wanderers and part-time therapists who lend you an ear while we pour another round. We are the immigrants, hidden behind walls to protect you from the truth: we are in crisis.

Our way of life has been shattered by an invisible enemy who left us paralyzed from the onset. When the COVID-19 pandemic infected the industry, its symptoms left many businesses on life support overnight.

Now, as the nation grips a new reality, we find ourselves in a vicious cycle of emotions that few want to talk about. Welcome to the Industry, where emotions are signs of weakness and we shame rather than share.

COVID-19 is a very real crisis for the restaurant industry but our first pandemic started long before you stopped coming to our restaurants.

The virus that has slowly infected our industry is called silence. It started by not hearing the voice of those struggling with mental health issues. The symptoms multiplied as voices that needed to cry out in objection to the blatant abuses that transpired but went silent over fear of repercussion. In the industry, when we encounter adversity we work harder or face ridicule. This pattern is engrained from the moment we don our first non-slip shoes till the time we button up our first chef coat.

We are the workers, abuse disguised as hazing because the pattern is all we knew. We sacrifice our mental and physical health for a dream that was sold to us of one day running our own restaurant draped in awards.

As we battled our own pandemic, the vaccine never came. Chefs’ obsessions with perfection led many down the road of isolation only to be met with a darkness that cost them their lives. We mourned the losses of the icons while we vowed to never forget their legacies forged in the kitchens that haunted their minds.

From depression to suicide, abuse to overdose, our industry gave us misfits a place to belong. Despite the millions of us who remain uninsured, we put our health at risk to serve you.

The truth is that our industry was on life support before COVID-19. The pandemic pulled the plug.

Now, as we are faced with closing down our restaurants and letting our staff go, another virus is reviled: grief. Grief is a scathing expose into the depths of depravity we bury under our addictions. Working in an industry that is ill equipped and often chastising of mental health issues sets us up for a perfect storm of inescapable grief. As many of us often do, we turn to our addictions to quiet the profound fears and loss we cannot shake. We sleep less, drink more, work harder and find our only solace in the minuscule things we have left to control.

Our band of misfit family is shattered by the uncertainty of our futures. Our minds continue to spiral and we continue to self-medicate. Emotions are like playing the wack-a-mole game at an arcade. As you hammer one down, they resurface in other locations. For the grief stricken, repression leads to depression.

Our industry has battled a pandemic of silence for far too long. It has claimed the lives of our friends, our colleagues and our heroes. This silence has deafened the voices that needed to be heard. We have silenced the abuse, the addiction and the emotions by working harder. Our pandemic is killing our loved ones and the symptoms are obvious.

Silence kills and the vaccine is in giving a voice to the voiceless. It is listening to our staff and caring about their well-being both physically and mentally. It is in putting people before profits. We will reopen our doors to the public one day soon, but our industry’s virus will continue to rage, infecting a new generation of hosts unless we decide to make a change. We must find strength in asking for help. We must rise up as an industry and socially distance ourselves from the culture of bravado that caused so many to remain quiet in their desperate times of need.

We are the Industry, broken yet beautiful, and silent no longer.

Author, Chef, & Restauranteur. Founder of The Farmers Dinner, Author of The Perfect Turkey & The Farmers Dinner Cookbook. instagram.com/keithsarasin

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