Austin Restaurants Get Mental Health Access with Mike and Sherry Project
How the friendship between a restaurant owner and two loyal guests sparked a profound idea
If you frequent any of Austin’s top restaurants, chances are you’ve crossed paths with Mike Shefman and Sherry Greenberg. Before the pandemic, the couple dined out almost every night, treating bartenders, servers and chefs like family. The longtime Austinites have a habit of adopting everyone they meet, bestowing candied nuts and homemade cookies and seeds from their garden. Greenberg once donated her wedding dress to a waitress at one of their haunts—“because I could see she was about my size and what was I going to do with it?”
Honoring these deep ties to the restaurant community, a unique initiative providing affordable mental health care to service industry workers was recently named after the two eager epicures—though it was a touching surprise to the dining duo.
“It’s a real gift to us,” says Greenberg. “I forgot to have kids, so we love the people in the food and beverage industry like our own children.
Unofficially launched in March 2019, the Mike & Sherry Project is the brainchild of Suerte owner Sam Hellman-Mass and the product of about 10 years of friendship with the couple. They knew Bryce Gilmore while he was still hatching the concept for Odd Duck in a South Austin food trailer (“Quail at a picnic table!” Greenberg recalls with relish) and met Hellman-Mass when he joined Gilmore as sous chef at Barley Swine.
“I remember seeing an Anthony Bourdain interview with Jacques Pépin where Pépin says the best restaurants are the ones where you know the people,” says Shefman. “Sam became like family; we love him and have watched him prosper and grow and work so hard.”
Hellman-Mass says he is not alone in their extended restaurant family, so when a member of his Suerte staff was struggling, he asked Shefman if he’d be willing to reach out and share advice. Seeing the benefit of that conversation sparked the idea to foster similar connections across the industry, and he wanted the project to celebrate those relationships.
“It’s humbling to be honored for something so near and dear to your heart,” says Shefman. “We have spent a lot of time talking to people, and after all, what is therapy but talking to people?”
Inspired by and for community, the small idea has grown exponentially to meet a major need. While the onset of the pandemic put new pressures on restaurant workers, Hellman-Mass says the need for affordable mental health care existed long before 2020.
“The restaurant business is a people business,” he shares, “and people in the industry have all the same struggles as other people in their jobs and in their lives. You can only be your best if you feel good, so we wanted to provide avenues to help.”
Where other initiatives focus on specific issues like addiction and substance abuse, Hellman-Mass wanted to provide comprehensive care for everything from trauma to relationships, depression and anxiety. Noticing a lack of clinical components at existing industry meetup groups, he decided to partner with Capital Area Counseling (CAC), a 501(c)(3) offering income-based counseling on a sliding scale. The Mike & Sherry Project has established a $25 flat fee per appointment for employees of member restaurants, of which the restaurant pays $15 and the employee pays the remaining $10. If the employee is unable to afford the $10 fee, funds from the project cover the difference. And for employees of not-yet-participating restaurants, the Mike & Sherry Project covers appointment costs on a sliding scale based on income and other factors.
“What Sam is doing is very unique,” says Jaime Telfeyan, LPC-S, executive director at CAC. “The project has already helped hundreds of people, even during the early days of the pandemic when so many people were furloughed.” Hellman-Mass first heard of CAC through a Suerte employee, designating it as one of the charitable causes for the restaurant’s first-anniversary celebration in 2019. When the party raised $5,000, he started asking more people to partner with him in spreading the word. Initially, a core group formed, including Kathleen Lucente from Suerte’s PR partner at Red Fan Communications, and a few key players in the restaurant space. As conversations evolved over meetings and dinners at Suerte, Matt Luckie of FBR Management and Épicerie chef-owner Sarah McIntosh emerged as two of the most engaged participants.
“I think Matt and I were just responsive and proactive; we just continued to show up,” says McIntosh, who has loved gaining new friendships around a shared desire to help people in the industry.
“Sam’s a real connector,” adds Luckie. “He’s so passionate about his staff and his food, and it’s infectious. Those are the types of people you want to be around.”
McIntosh agrees, noting how Hellman-Mass’s passion for mental health in particular is what first drew her to the project. The pair connected while stocking up one week at Boggy Creek Farm, and she recalls how well the timing coincided with her own journey of mental health.
“I was just at this point in my life when I was meditating a lot and exploring my own self-awareness,” she says. “That’s part of mental health, and it felt like there were few opportunities to have some of those discussions in a safe space in our industry.”
In environments where staff are often pushed to the limits, issues like addiction can rise to the surface, while underlying problems like anxiety are less obvious yet equally dangerous. At Épicerie, McIntosh is candid about her struggles with OCD in an effort to create a healthy work environment not only for herself but for her employees. Her sous chef, Chloe Kennedy, says McIntosh’s openness boosts team morale by encouraging honest communication. Access to counseling through the Mike & Sherry Project further enhances those conversations, giving everyone the same tools to engage in healthy discussion rather than expressing emotion in unhelpful ways throughout service.
“I’ve never done therapy before this because of the cost,” says Kennedy. “It’s opened my mind to a whole aspect of things I didn’t realize were habits based on past traumas. Having the tools to properly communicate—especially in the high-stress environment of the kitchen—has been essential.”
Kennedy hopes the Mike & Sherry Project will continue to eradicate the mental health stigma in restaurants across Austin, normalizing the need to ask for help. Everyone behind the project shares that vision, which is part of why the pandemic’s potential roadblocks only heightened their determination when it could have slowed them down.
“The pandemic really caught us at a crossroads,” says Luckie. “We had just started talking with other businesses about how to grow the model when COVID cut us off, but Sam said, ‘Launch it. Let’s go.’ And Jaime and her team haven’t flinched.”
Announced on social media in May 2020, the full list of participating restaurants expanded to 18 by the end of the year, while total appointments made possible through the project are currently estimated at over 2100 since 2019. With in-person fundraising events off the table for now, the project hopes to keep growing through social media and by word-of-mouth: Tito’s donated $10,000, and the Austin Marathon has listed the initiative as one of this year’s charitable partners. While everyone involved would eventually love to see the model expand to other cities, the current priority is just making sure more local restaurants learn about the service and that CAC has the ongoing resources to see anyone who reaches out.
“COVID made people realize what an integral part restaurants and bars play in our daily lives,” says Shefman. “They’re not just places. They’re woven into the fabric of our life. We need to sustain that, and we do that by being for them what they’ve always been for everybody in the community.”
Watching the impact increase so quickly has been incredible to the project’s namesakes, who are blown away not just by the numbers, but by individual letters of gratitude from those whose lives have been touched.
“Thank you for your kindness,” reads one note they received anonymously from CAC. “It was such a pleasant surprise when I found out my time at CAC was covered…and to be reminded that people like you exist. It reminds me that healing as a whole or at all starts somewhere, starts small, but can grow and reach so many if we care to do so with love.”