The co-founder of The Weeds talks about mental health in the hospitality industry

The non-profit organization emphasizes healthy lifestyles

In the Weeds offers healthy options for restaurant workers instead of drinking. (File by Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Jerry McBride

For many in Durango, the restaurant and hospitality industry is their livelihood.

Restaurants and bars are strongly highlighted due to the city’s high number of visitors, especially in summer. Although many employees are passionate about their work, the industry is associated with stress and mental unrest.

In 2019, John Rowe and Blaine Bailey founded In The Weeds, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping change the culture of mental health in the hospitality industry.

Bailey sat down Durango Herald to discuss issues of mental health and substance use in the restaurant industry.

Q: How did In The Weeds start?

A: We started a few years ago, and before that I’ve been in the business for 17 years now. I thought of the idea for the first time in 2015.

My co-founder, John Rowe, worked for me at Carver’s, and we had lost one of our chefs to an overdose. We had already worked with him trying to connect them with other resources in the city, but we still have the company.

And John, he was in school for his sociology (licensed clinical social worker) and everything. I told him, I said, Man, when you graduate, we need therapy for crazy chefs, and we laughed about it at the time, like, “That’s never going to happen, you know?” Years went by and in 2018 I had experienced the loss of a relationship and was hitting the bottle hard and just stressed all the time.

I couldn’t spend time on my relationship, my partnership and my personal relationships. So I decided it was time to take a little break and went to Wisconsin for the summer and just get away from it all here.

I went to work for a company. And our chef, he gave us a project for the summer and it (focused) How can we save the world with food?

And so I started thinking about it. I kind of went to the individual, you know, you can’t help anybody else until you help yourself. Then it was like: What does it look like? And why not our industry? restaurant business? Because we are connected to all other industries

Everybody from bankers, construction, real estate, whatever, they all go to restaurants at some point, you know, usually once a week, and we have a great opportunity to tap into those other industries. , the drink, the atmosphere, all that kind of stuff.

Everyone from bankers, construction, real estate, whatever, they all go to restaurants at some point. We have a great opportunity to connect with other industries. We can literally change the course of someone’s day.

That’s where the idea started and then we decided to bring it back here to Durango because we have so many restaurants in town.

I already knew a lot of restaurant chefs and focused on restaurants, and it was kind of like we had that relationship built because we talk about mental health and substance use and suicide prevention, all those heavy things.

Q: If you had to scale it, how bad is mental health or substance use in the restaurant or hospitality industry?

A: In La Plata County, I don’t have those numbers in my head. To give you an idea, nationally, even globally, we are the third largest industry for substance use issues.

I think the best two are health and construction or something. But you know, we always laugh like it’s such a bad thing in our industry because it’s like a rock star lifestyle and you can party and still keep your job and all that.

Then when we start looking at things like the entertainment sector and it’s No. 4 and (hospitality) No. 3. It’s like, Oh, we actually party harder than rock stars.

Q: Why do you think so?

A: There are many things that overlap. Overworked, underpaid, and it’s a big passion-based industry.

People ask why do you stay in this industry if the pay is not that great? We love what we do. We love helping others, taking care of others, whatever. It is a (a) lower income sector that we are trying to change and that we are trying to create a viable career in this sector.

And then there’s easy access. If you work in a restaurant, booze is always there. Especially if you’re a bartender or server and pour drinks all the time. So we tried to change this culture.

A lot of restaurants offer interactive drinks and things like that, so they tried to get away from that and offer other healthier incentives and rewards or choices.

Yeah, overworked, underpaid, ease of use, culture, tradition, you know, it was that field of misfits and users, and you can still keep your job with a hangover.

It was my first job.

My manager said I don’t care what you do as long as you can still do your job. We start drinking at 8, you know?

Q: What does your organization offer to help people in the hospitality industry?

A: The biggest one is our best self-care program. So it’s our healthy reward for healthy choices. And this is how we help our companies, because providing shift drinks is one of the cheapest and easiest benefits employees can get.

But there are people who are like I don’t want to drink or they are under 21 or sober. Then it’s like Well, where’s my $3 for not taking my shift drink or whatever? People are like that, I might as well have my shift drink because there’s nothing else to do.

So it’s like a punch pass. Every time they refuse to drink, they get a beating. When they get 10 punches, they can redeem it with, say, $25 in coupons for a variety of healthy options. It’s used item #1.

I moved here 10 years ago from Arkansas to do all the fun stuff and I couldn’t afford any of the fun stuff. So the other option is to try to remove barriers, we pay for tickets to climbing gyms, yoga studios and then we have like snowshoes and snowboards for people in the industry for free.

In the summer, it’s paddle boards, kayaks, and then just connecting people with resources, training, and things like that.

In things like professional life skills and capacity development and training, we pay industry workers to reduce cost barriers so they can grow and do what they want.

Q: Do you think there’s anything restaurant owners can do to help this cause better, or is it just part of the grind of the industry?

A: I think on a personal business level it’s always communicating with your team and being part of your team, listening to your staff and paying attention. I think that’s the biggest thing, paying attention to the culture, the toxicity and how you can help change it.

Get help for that too. There’s no shame in that. I wouldn’t blame a single restaurant. Our industry has been like this for the last few years.

I think asking for help and understanding and seeing how they can transition speakers to their team, what would they like to see? Do you also know that you are part of the change and at the forefront and leading it, as an example of it?

Yes, they can do all kinds of things. When we started at In The Weeds, we asked: What is our ultimate mission and vision? It’s like, “Well, let’s change the culture, but it could take 10 to 50 years or whatever.”

When COVID hit, and it really accelerated the culture change because people know how much they should take care of their mental and physical health.

Restaurants were like Here’s more pay, here’s benefits, here’s this, but then food costs went through the roof because of inflation, and now they’re struggling.

Owners and cooks and managers also have to wash dishes and work in every part of the restaurant. So they are no longer able to communicate with their team because they are exhausted, exhausted or whatever.

Q: What are your future plans for In The Weeds?

A: We are currently expanding into Montezuma and Archuleta County.

We work with another similar organization in Denver, but they’re kind of urban and they were rural.

I think it’s just being there and supporting people and helping people create those opportunities and really change the culture.

It also collaborates with others, from business owners to other organizations. And it’s such a relevant industry with all the food shows and documentaries on TV.

It really makes a difference in people’s lives and it can be a really amazing industry. What I miss most is cooking and having someone eat my special food and really love it.

It’s really cool, and I think it’s really special in our industry as well, that a lot of people come from broken families and they get to create a new family by working in a restaurant.

tbrown@durangoherald.com


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