Popular Austin Bars and Restaurants Prioritize Employees’ Mental Health and Wellbeing
Paul Finn, who works at Garage, says the food and beverage industry can be pressure cooker
By Laurel Miller
Photographs by Mica McCook and Matt Rainwaters
It may seem strange – even hypocritical – for a bar to have a policy that forbids staff and managers from drinking during shifts. Paul Finn will be the first to admit the food and beverage industry is “unique,” in that imbibing while at work historically has been not just tolerated but encouraged. But not at his place. Finn has been the beverage manager at Austin’s extolled craft cocktail bar, Garage, since 2016, but he started working in restaurants as a high school student. “We tend to forget to eat, sleep or exercise in this job, and reaching for a drink from the back bar can be an easy escape,” he says. “It’s critical that employees are assisted with finding healthier outlets and for management to create boundaries. I don’t want my staff to just power through their shift. I want them to arrive ready to work and feeling good.”
For Finn, who’s had his own mental health issues, it’s not just about the bottom line. He’s on a mission to create change within the industry and starts with his place of work. In 2018, he implemented an informal staff protocol, based on his own core values, and “a desire to create a more mindful workplace.” From awareness training designed to combat repetitive motion disorders to assisting employees in crisis and being open with his own struggles, Finn is committed to helping his employees on and off the clock. Full-time staff also get medical insurance, which includes mental health coverage.
While passionate about his career, Finn is quick to point out the physically and psychologically challenging nature of restaurant and bar work. “You’re often in circumstances where you put on a performance for guests, but you’re also continuously pushed over the edge,” he says. “It’s a pressure cooker. Add drugs, alcohol, mental health issues and peer pressure in the form of camaraderie to a general lack of self-care and no medical insurance, and it’s a bomb waiting to go off.”
The downfall of chefs like Mario Batali and the tragic and much-publicized suicide (and early writings) of Anthony Bourdain shed light on the dark underbelly of the professional cooking, but it’s kickstarted a dialogue on how best to address issues common within the industry. On a national level, Kat Kinsman, senior editor at Food & Wine magazine and author of Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, advocates for mental health within the restaurant industry through her Communal Table podcast, on which Finn has been a guest.
In Austin, Finn’s colleague Philip Speer, chef and co-owner of Comedor, has garnered attention for his food and beverage (F&B) industry running club – including in the pages of Tribeza – and weekly yoga classes, which promote wellness and combat the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse. Just as important, says Speer, who has been sober since 2015, is “building community and creating a new space in our industry for camaraderie and health.”
“I love bouncing ideas off of Philip because we really harmonize in our ideas of wellness,” says Finn. “He’s encouraged me to go more wholeheartedly into this movement, and now I’m doing podcasts and speaking at conferences.” Coincidentally, Comedor and Garage are both co-owned by William Ball, who has been sober since before both establishments opened. “He never insisted we have these policies,” says Finn. “He wanted us to come to our own conclusions and he’s been nothing but supportive.”
Finn refers to his employee program as “personal mise en place.” The culinary term, which means, “everything in its place,” refers to the practice of getting all of one’s tools and ingredients assembled before starting a task. Finn applies it to one’s mental state, as well. “By taking a look at our own daily rituals, we can identify patterns,” he says. “This allows us to clear out non-productive items in our mise and replace them with more efficient and productive routines.” For example, smoking due to anxiety can be replaced with going for a walk, meditation or burning incense. While it’s admittedly hard to engage in certain practices while making drinks or working a grill, the overarching point is lifestyle modification.
Physical movement and spatial awareness are also critical concepts in the food and beverage industry, where repetitive motion injuries can be career-ending and chronic pain can become a deadly enticement for those at risk of addiction or prone to depression. Four times a year, Finn brings in instructor Steven Brennfleck to teach his staff principles of The Alexander Technique, which espouses mindful movement, leading to a reduction of inefficient habits and self-described “patterns of accumulated tension.”
Garage also provides classes on maintaining mental wellness and the benefits offered by therapy (taught by Finn’s sister-in-law, Dr. Tracy Carver, an F&B veteran with a PhD in psychology). Staff learn how to utilize the HALT method, an acronym for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.” It’s an awareness training concept used by addiction counselors; Finn learned it from Kinsman. “Most of the time, the things that are causing friction or stress during our shift can be addressed by taking care of our most primal needs: food, communication, friendship and rest,” he says.
One of the biggest challenges to enforcing a no drinking policy at a bar is the need for research and development (R&D) – as with cooking, it’s necessary to experiment and then taste in order to perfect a recipe. “It’s tricky ground,” admits Finn. “A drink on the job usually starts out as an innocent thing, but not everyone can handle it. For R&D, I have rules. Bartenders need to get approval for a concept, and they’re allowed three tries during development. It’s also about diminishing returns because if a drink isn’t working by then, it’s time to move on, which also prevents palate fatigue.”
When it comes to his own job, Finn says, “I’m probably the most annoying beverage manager because my tasting policies are so strict. I’m in the business of alcohol – there’s no way around that, but you need to have limitations.”
Garage’s longtime employees are grateful for those boundaries, and the intent behind them. Tesla Ramos has been an employee since 2015. “I love working here, especially with Paul,” she says. “But it was like the Wild West when I started. I’ve seen the craft cocktail industry evolve and I’ve also realized: the people who sparked this movement are getting older, too. You learn that your body doesn’t recover like it used to and working 10 hours shifts in a dark bar is tough, mentally and physically.”
Finn agrees that, in general, restaurants and high-end bars have “a much healthier atmosphere now; a lot of young bartenders coming up haven’t even been exposed to that culture of debauchery.”
For Ramos, the most valuable thing she’s gained from working at Garage can’t be quantified in monetary or experiential terms. “Life happens,” she says. “I’ve gone through some personal crises and if not for Paul and the owners being like a family, I wouldn’t have had the support and time off I needed. It makes you feel like you’re not going through it alone.”