Danielle and Justin Walker, owners of Walkers Maine in Cape Neddick, shut down their 2-year-old restaurant on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, let 24 employees go, and quickly pivoted to takeout and delivery to try to survive the pandemic. Stressful? No doubt.

But then, two weeks later, their stress levels went through the roof – literally. A fire in the attic of the restaurant caused extensive water damage, and the couple had to wrestle with extensive (and expensive) repairs, as well as the threat of the coronavirus and the depression and anxiety they felt at seeing their life’s dream in ashes. It was, Danielle Walker said, “terrifying.”

To get through it, the couple connected with other struggling restaurant owners through the many fundraisers held in the early part of the pandemic, and fed off the energy of those events. They commiserated with other restaurant people on social media, and sometimes those online messages led to empathetic phone calls. They bought a state park pass and went on camping trips with restaurant friends “to get a reprieve, stop the noise,” Walker said.

“The biggest outlet for stress and anxiety that we found was actually in our own restaurant community, and leaning on those who were going through the same thing we were,” she said. “Not many in our normal circle of friends could identify with what we were going through.”

The restaurant industry is incredibly stressful by its very nature. But the pandemic put extra helpings of mental health issues on the plate, right alongside health concerns about catching the virus, worries about keeping staff safe, and uncertainty about restaurants’ very financial survival. Nationally, restaurant industry groups have urged that more attention be paid to dealing with depression and anxiety, and maintaining sobriety. (The James Beard Foundation has put together an extensive list of mental health resources for restaurant workers.)

Local restaurateurs have made it through the past year with the help of friends, exercise, meditative activities, time in nature, and therapy. Some say that although they have been working extraordinarily hard to save their businesses, being forced to slow down during temporary closures and standing in nearly empty dining rooms has given them a new perspective and an appreciation for a better work-life balance – not only for themselves, but for their employees as well.

“What the pandemic did is, it showed us that it’s OK to slow down, and that in slowing down you’re able to remember what’s important,” said Jesse Bania, general manager of Solo Italiano on Commercial Street in Portland.

Miller adjusts weights in his home gym. His commitment to exercise has become inviolable. “If I get out of work at midnight, I don’t care,” Miller said. “I go home and work out until one or two in the morning.” Ariana van den Akker

Gym rat

Like Walker, Austin Miller, chef/owner of the Japanese restaurant Mami on Fore Street in Portland, says the early part of the pandemic was “terrifying.” When coronavirus hit, Miller shut the restaurant down for a week, then began to offer curbside pick-up only. He worked alone in the kitchen for three months, which he says was “very weird.” He took comfort in the fact that if Mami failed, he’d still be able to find work in someone else’s kitchen.

“It was extremely stressful in the beginning,” he said. “Basically within the first two to three weeks of the pandemic, I just came to terms with the fact that the restaurant may go away, and that it’s just a part of my life. It doesn’t consume my whole life.”

He also turned to exercise and cut back on his consumption of alcohol. Miller has trained in jujitsu for several years, but during the pandemic he turned his home garage into a home gym, using his government stimulus checks to buy weights, a squat rack and other equipment. And he says he is now in the best shape of his life.

Before the pandemic, Miller said, he suffered from “that chef body thing.” Chefs are moving around all the time, he explained, “but we’re eating all the time, too. We don’t sleep. We don’t necessarily eat the best things.” At the end of long, hard nights working, he would usually reward himself and his staff with beer.

Miller took all of that stress, multiplied by the stress of the pandemic, and funneled it into his workouts, instead of “stewing in the negative.” The result is he’s dropped 25-30 pounds and now limits himself to two to three beers a month. He eats regular meals and works out every day, no excuses. “If I get out of work at midnight, I don’t care,” Miller said. “I go home and work out until one or two in the morning.”

Spending more time with his wife and two small children, hiking and doing other fun activities, also helped alleviate pandemic stress, Miller said.

“The best thing that came out of this was I haven’t read a review in a year and a half,” Miller said. “I don’t read online at all. I don’t go to Google, I don’t go to Yelp, I deleted all the apps. Any real conversation I’m going to have (with a customer) is going to be face to face. That has been probably been the single greatest thing I’ve done for myself, to eliminate that whole negative aspect.”

Miller isn’t the only chef who uses exercise as an outlet for stress. Cara Stadler, owner of Bao Bao in Portland and Tao Yuan in Brunswick, likes to swim for the cardiovascular workout, endorphin release and quiet, but couldn’t this year because pools were closed. Stadler was forced to close Lio, her newest restaurant, which was located in Portland; she owns the buildings that house her other spots, but at Lio, she had to pay rent. While closing a restaurant is stressful, the other daily stresses of the industry, she said, “weren’t nearly as present in my mind. We weren’t as busy, and we weren’t working the same level of hours and the same level of intensity.”

Still, she said, the instability of the past year “has made me decide that I never want to open a restaurant again.”

Kevin Quiet, chef/owner of Ribollita on Middle Street in Portland, has always commuted five miles to and from work on his bike, and he says that has helped him through the pandemic as well. “On a crisp night, a cool night, you can feel the stress leaving,” he said.

His on-the-job stress relief is the hour a day he spends making pasta.

“That’s my quiet time, when I make my pasta,” he said. “It’s meditative, I think, the process of it. It forces me to slow down a little bit because you can only do it at a certain speed.”

Nordic nights, therapy couch

Lisa Kostopoulos and one of her restaurant friends, David Turin, owner of David’s in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland, at her pandemic New Year’s party. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kostopoulos

Lisa Kostopoulos, owner of The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth, says that in any given week during the pandemic, one of her employees would break down in tears, and everyone would rally around. As for herself, Kostopoulos said when she was feeling blue, she just went home and tried to let it go. At 61, she says, she didn’t want to work herself to exhaustion anymore.

The spread at one of the Nordic luncheons Lisa Kostopoulos held for friends during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kostpoulos

Kostopoulos spent the past year soaking in soothing hot baths. She gabbed a lot on the phone with her good friend David Turin, owner of David’s Restaurant in Portland, and Zoomed weekly with a friend in Worcester, Massachusetts. She also bought a fire pit and a cord of wood when the weather turned colder, and hosted Nordic-themed lunches and dinners all through the winter for her friends in the industry. She served Swedish meatballs, beer and cheese soup, and Nordic spirits.

“I bought long johns for the occasion,” she said. “I would wear big fluffy hats and gloves and sweaters.”

For chef Jay Villani, co-owner of three Portland restaurants – Salvage BBQ, Local 188 and Black Cow – taking care of himself, and his mental health, has been a long process. On his own since the age of 17, he grew up in restaurants that were managed by “screamers, and I thought that’s how you had to be.” About 10 years ago, he says, he decided to “let go” of the attitude and the micromanaging, “and just let people blossom and do their thing.”

Along came the pandemic in 2020, and Villani took the next step in nurturing his mental health: therapy. The stress of the pandemic was bleeding into the rest of his life. “I was having issues at home, and I was just being miserable,” he said, explaining that he “really wasn’t taking into consideration what everyone else was going through around me.”

His wife, a school teacher, faced her own stress: teaching online. And he worried about his 17-year-old daughter, who was unable to do the things teenagers normally do – socialize with friends, go to dances, play sports. So at the end of last summer, Villani started seeing a therapist once a week.

“It’s just good to vent to someone and talk to someone,” he said, “and have someone listen and give you some advice. Or they’ll show you something in a different light that you wouldn’t have seen normally because you’ve been so convicted in your approach with life and how to run the business.”

Months later, he now goes to therapy every couple of weeks, and tries to live by his business partner’s longtime motto: Improvise, adapt and overcome. “We’re not going to freak out,” Villani said. “We’re not going to stress. We’re just going to do what we can, and adapt and overcome.”

Work-life balance

Jesse Bania says that the early days of the pandemic were “freaking weird and scary.” When restaurants went on lockdown, he came back in to Solo Italiano first thing the following morning and started plotting how to do takeout. He came into work every day, even though the restaurant was closed. “I would sit at the bar with my paper-phone-iPad war machine and just literally waited for the phone to ring,” he recalled.

One day he went home and took a bath. His heart started to race, and he was filled with anxiety. His breathing became labored, and when he got out of the tub he was light-headed. His wife made him lie down, brought him a cold drink of water, and told him to “just breathe.” It was the first panic attack of Bania’s life.

“In that moment, I was like ‘This can’t be it,'” he said. “This can’t be what this moment is about. This isn’t about me having to do everything to survive. This is about us figuring out what’s actually going to work in this moment, and hoping that the community and perhaps some relief from state and federal government come through. You can’t control everything, right?”

The restaurant scaled back its hours and the days it would be open. At home, Bania said getting his hands in the dirt helped him focus. He started gardening, growing vegetables and herbs. And he threw himself into projects around the house, which was built in the 1880s. He and his wife got their 6-year-old a dog, a boxer mix named Anise, like the spice.

Solo Italiano laid off 90 percent of its staff at the beginning of the pandemic. Bania wrote regular, lengthy emails to those employees, keeping them apprised of what was happening at the restaurant, from how many lasagnas they were selling to how much the few remaining staff missed the energy in the dining room. He also included lists of resources they could use to help them get through the crisis. Bania said many staffers wrote back, telling him they were getting outside, camping and generally enjoying summer in Maine – something they usually can’t do because they’re working.

Bania experienced some of that summer bliss himself one night when he hopped on his scooter at the early closing time of 8 p.m. and enjoyed a sunset ride home. “There were simple things like that that we were able to find renewed appreciation for,” he said.

Pandemic moments like these – rediscovering simple pleasures –  are, he says, part of what’s causing some restaurant workers to retire, change jobs, or go back to school for a degree. Bania said he hopes the lessons learned stick around long after the pandemic is over, especially as the labor market changes and people search for jobs that they not only need to do, but jobs they want to do. The more work-life balance issues are paid attention to, he said, the better it is for both the financial health of restaurants and the mental health of employees.

“One of the things coming out of this pandemic is the fact that it’s important for industry employers and employees to ensure there’s a proper balance of life,” he said, “that people have enough money to put food on the table, time to sleep at night, and two nights off a week.”

When the Walkers were interviewed in mid-May, they were planning to launch their 2021 season on May 26 – the first time the restaurant’s doors have been open in more than a year. Staffing is down by a third, so there are only enough employees to be open five nights a week. But Danielle Walker is optimistic, and she looks forward to having a healthy season – both financially and mentally.

“I call myself a server all the time,” she said. “That’s what I am. We take joy out of bringing joy to others. I cannot wait to put a cocktail down in a fabulous glass with a garnish on a table and watch the delight.”

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