The board members of Heard, a local nonprofit that provides emotional support for food and beverage industry workers, meet on April 23. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Fueled by high stress and late hours, the hospitality and food service industry is fertile ground for tension and anxiety, taking a toll on workers’ mental health.

Every Monday, a small room on the second floor of Brick Marketplace in the Blue Star Arts Complex serves as a place for San Antonio’s service employees to gather and talk about their struggles with substance abuse and addiction, stress, and the difficulties of working in the industry.

The weekly recovery and mental health support group – called Heard – is sponsored by the Saint City Culinary Foundation, a local nonprofit founded by Joel Rivas in 2017 to provide emotional support for food and beverage industry workers.

Anywhere from two to 20 people will attend the weekly Heard meetings, sharing  their experiences with depression, grief over a death in the family, struggles with staying sober on the job, and other challenges, Rivas said.

Starting May 6, the foundation is taking its mission to Austin and will begin hosting weekly Heard meetings at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin every Tuesday.

“People who have never worked in a kitchen, restaurant, or bar don’t understand the dynamic and how the culture can lead people to drinking [or using drugs],” Rivas said. “You can’t be an accountant going to work smelling like whiskey, but for people in [food] service, alcohol and drugs are pretty easily accessible throughout a person’s shift.”

Restaurants are busy, often hectic workplaces, where wine and other alcohol flow freely, and unwinding after a late kitchen or serving shift often involves alcohol or other substances.

Joel Rivas.
Joel Rivas Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Rivas stepped into his first kitchen at age 18, and by the time he was 20, he had a cocaine habit that was costing hundreds of dollars a week. Sober for the last 23 years, Rivas said the foundation is a way for him to do something for an industry that is “close to [his] heart.”

The Saint City Culinary Foundation started with two main goals: To raise funds to help recruit more women to work in kitchens through its Saint City Supper Club, a dinner club featuring area chefs creating multi-course meals, and to help people battling addiction by providing direct resources.

“We aren’t trying to get the industry sober, but there is a shocking number of people in the industry who don’t have a safety net or someone to help them,” said Taylor Hagan, the foundation’s chief marketing officer. “These are also people who are often without health insurance, which adds a layer of difficulty to getting help.”

According to a 2015 study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the food service and hospitality industry has the highest rates of substance use disorders (19 percent) and third-highest rates of heavy alcohol use of all employment sectors.

The food and hospitality sector fell behind only mining and construction, with nearly 12 percent of the workforce reporting “heavy alcohol use” (consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in under two hours, for five consecutive days) in the past month, almost three times the rate in the health care and education sectors.

The hospitality industry represented nearly one-seventh of the total number of jobs in the San Antonio metropolitan area in 2017, according to a study on the economic impact of the local hospitality industry completed by Trinity University. The restaurant and catering sector provided 100,831 jobs, and made the largest contribution to the local economy, accounting for nearly 52 percent of the total economic impact, or $8 billion.

Composed entirely of volunteers, the Saint City Culinary Foundation is trying to raise funds to expand services for food service employees beyond its weekly support groups, to include a general fund that can help uninsured workers afford the ongoing or acute mental health care services they need.

“We want to be able to afford to help someone who needs to see a doctor today get to a  doctor today,”Hagan said.

At the beginning of April, the Pearl restaurant Cured announced it would donate $1 from every charcuterie board sold through June to the foundation’s mental health initiatives. Recently, the foundation raised funds partnering with Still Golden Social House near the Pearl on Broadway, where a portion of drink sales went to the nonprofit.

Jeret Peña, managing partner with Still Golden owner the Boulevardier Group, said drug, alcohol, and mental health concerns are in the forefront for the restaurant industry because “people are talking more about those issues now.”

“People struggle and experience a lot of ups and downs, and when you are loading your system with drugs and alcohol” that can be a problem for your entire life, Peña said. “There is a culture of drug and alcohol abuse in the industry for many reasons, and it’s important we do what we can to help people address it.”

While a bar may not seem like a setting conducive to an addiction recovery and mental health fundraiser, Rivas said that when it comes to helping people get help, “you have to meet people where they are at.”

“The most important thing for us right now is to make sure that people in the industry know that we are around and available to help them,” he said. “We are leaving flyers in break rooms, and we are reaching out to the service community directly to remind them we are here and how to contact us.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.