Since the pandemic shut down restaurants in 2020, Seattle restaurants have endured myriad challenges. Now, as the industry begins to recover, we’re asking how will it be changed? In this miniseries, food writer Jackie Varriano explores this issue from the perspective of those who create the magic of the dining experience — servers.
In many bars and restaurants, alcohol plays a central role in the event of dining out. It’s there for celebrations or commiseration, considered an easy way to elevate any meal. Carefully crafted cocktails and meticulously curated wine lists can win awards, bring prestige. Servers and bartenders making and serving these drinks have an integral part to play, but that role can come with its own set of problems too.
“You’re putting on a show for people, making sure they have a wonderful time. There’s a swell of energy and people need to do something with that energy,” Deborah Friend Wilson, a certified professional coach and the consultant behind a new wellness program at The Lakehouse restaurant in Bellevue.
Sometimes, the thing people who work in restaurants do with that energy is drink.
Alcohol is embedded in restaurant culture, from tasting product as a server or bartender to build their knowledge of what they’re selling to something called a “shift drink,” the free drink one gets at their place of employment once they are finished with their shift. In some bars and restaurants, it’s even listed on the menu: “buy the kitchen a round of beers.”
For some that culture stops at the restaurant door; for some it can become a problem.
In a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, food-service and hospitality workers were shown to have the highest rate of substance-use disorders and the third-highest rate of heavy alcohol use. One in 3 Americans’ first jobs are in a restaurant. Some fear the culture of alcohol and substance abuse in the industry sets a dangerous precedent even for workers who later move on from restaurant work.
Stress, the odd hours, simply being around alcohol every day; service industry professionals who’ve experienced alcoholism point to several potential causes for such high rates of alcohol consumption.
“Drinking is a symptom of people in an industry that need to escape the stress,” Wilson says.
But the culture is shifting as individual restaurants work to create more stress-free workspaces and as programs arise to help servers cope. Still, the way someone in the service industry lives with what largely remains a part of the culture is personal and individualized.
For Jennifer Lim, that shift drink was forbidden fruit.
Lim was “born into” the restaurant industry. Her parents emigrated from Hong Kong to Houston in late 1968, joining family members established in the community with their own restaurants. Lim grew up in those restaurants, moving around with her parents as they opened other restaurants in other states. She started living alone when she was 15 — wanting stability to finish out her high school education, while her parents kept moving around the country — and that’s when she started drinking.
“We would have parties and people would come over to my house, back then the legal age was 19. For some reason I was able to buy [alcohol] and I never got carded,” Lim says during a recent phone call.
Lim started working in restaurants independently of her family when she was 18 and moved to Seattle in 1993 when she was 23, getting her first job in the city at the Red Door in Fremont. Throughout the years, at every job, alcohol was just part of the culture.
“In my 20s when I was working everybody would have ‘a safety meeting’ where everybody would meet at the bar, have a shot, and continue to work after that,” Lim says.
Over the years she’s seen people sneak drinks and do drugs during shift and after. It was accepted behavior, and if you decided to take a night off from it, “I never felt like I missed out. If you wanted to do it again the next night, it was always there,” Lim says.
It doesn’t always help to change restaurants either — at times a change in scenery can make things worse.
A series of choices
Kate Willman has worked in various roles in the restaurant industry for 20 years. Now she’s the director of hospitality for Dime Food Group and Green Lake restaurant Eight Row, as well as a licensed mental health counselor and associate psychotherapist at Seattle Anxiety Specialists. She’s also been sober for nearly a decade.
She first decided to get sober in 2013 while living in New York City. She had moved there for a change of scenery, but being away from her routine and everyone she knew had an adverse effect.
“My addiction went through the roof at that time. I had all the best intentions but it took a different environment for my addiction to get way worse so it could get better,” Willman says.
Willman partly thinks that she could’ve ended up with alcoholism no matter where she worked or what she did for a living — she compares it to the idea that you’re simply a server or a drunken server — “in the way that you’re either a doctor or a drunk doctor, a teacher or a drunk teacher,” she says. But then there’s another part.
“We have easy access to alcohol. We serve it and we talk about it all the time. And there’s these intangible parts of service that are really invigorating and booze and drugs can just go along with that,” Willman says. “I fully believe a part of me kept on in my restaurant career because I wanted to drink and drug the way I wanted to drink and drug.”
Similarly, Lim’s dependency on alcohol got to a point where she would call herself an alcoholic. She would have to get up and drink in the morning because she had the shakes.
“I was in a really bad place with my son’s father and he was drinking a lot, which was making me drink a lot more than I would normally drink,” she says.
It was an incredibly stressful time for Lim, and after nearly two years of this behavior, she ended her relationship with her son’s father. Lim went to detox, and after that was sober for nearly a year before relapsing. She went to detox again, this time adding a 30-day rehab program. She got sober and returned to a job in the service industry. But the shift drink beckoned.
“I was trying to stop drinking and everyone would sit down and have their shift drink. I would sit next to them, and I was like, I want to have one too. That’s what you do. After a while, I folded,” Lim says.
At the end of December 2021, Lim left the restaurant industry. It only took a few glasses of wine, but she realized she could no longer work in such proximity to alcohol. She’s been sober since.
For some, like Lim, leaving the industry altogether is what it takes to even begin exploring a life without alcohol.
For 20 years, Pete Hanning was the owner of Fremont’s Red Door — he’s the guy who gave Lim her first job when she moved to Seattle. Hanning worked in the industry for 35 years, closing the Red Door (which is now Dreamland) in March 2020 — just before COVID-19 hit. He wouldn’t call himself an alcoholic, but since closing the bar he’s been doing what he calls his “sober experiment” for 10 months.
“Partly because it felt like the first time for me that I really had an opportunity to do it,” Hanning says during a recent phone call. During that call he’s walking home from his local bar — Mike’s Chili Parlor — where he says he just drank a nonalcoholic beer.
“For me, when I’m out it’s very important that I’m still purchasing some product,” he says.
The Red Door was one of the first craft beer bars in the country. The bar stocked 130 spirits. He drank because he felt it was important to know what the products were.
“I took a lot of pride in curating that. But this was the first time where I wasn’t making money off alcohol sales and what does my life look like? There’s really a curiosity that I’ve been bringing to [being sober],” Hanning says.
That curiosity to explore sobriety is an important first step that cannot be understated. It’s proof that attitudes in the industry are changing.
When COVID hit, Deborah Wilson had just started a graduate school program at Seattle University for mental health counseling. She watched her husband Jason Wilson — who at the time was culinary director for Fire & Vine (a hospitality group that includes the El Gaucho family of restaurants) and is now chef and owner of Bellevue restaurant The Lakehouse — go from managing 12 restaurants to “barely keeping The Lakehouse alive.”
“What we’ve faced is an ongoing collective trauma. I found that studying in real time and in my personal life watching the restaurant industry go crazy, it was clear to me that I had skills and a unique education to help something that was going on right now,” Wilson says.
Last fall, as The Lakehouse was set to reopen after a pandemic-related closure, Wilson pitched her husband a pilot program centered on wellness and mental health, starting with a three-month commitment.
Her argument was that 1 in 3 Americans’ first jobs are in a restaurant. The National Restaurant Association calls restaurants the “training ground for America’s workers.”
“That’s half of our workforce. Half of our workforce is being role modeled in how to work by coming into restaurants. It’s not just a luxury or perk or benefit for your restaurant, I look at it as a responsibility for the industry to pay attention to how they’re treating their people. It’s community shaping,” Wilson says.
The program has three phases that take place roughly over three months; the first is based in a counseling framework. Listening and understanding the needs and culture of the restaurant, the demographics, issues and audience. Month two is getting the staff into a daily system of emotional check-ins.
“We’re training people to say, ‘How are you? How are you coming to this space?’” Wilson says.
That is translated by pushing a pin into a color-coded felt board representing feelings located in the kitchen. Pushing a pin in the green section means a person is feeling chill, relaxed. Yellow could be happy, energized, excited. Red could be agitated, angry, frustrated, while blue could be tired, down, depressed. Feelings change during the course of your shift? Change your pin.
“It’s an anonymous pin — so that doesn’t mean Sally showed up and she’s really pissed off. But it means you can walk into the kitchen right now and look at the board and see the mood of the team. When we do that, we take accountability and ownership of how we’re showing up,” Wilson says.
The second part of the program in month two is a lineup before service begins where after the usual conversation about specials or menu changes, the meeting finishes with a mood check-in where everyone says three words about how they’re feeling followed by a three-minute meditation exercise.
“And then you blink your eyes open, and off you go to service. It’s being really still and connected and centered, being mindful about what we’re about to do here, assess where you are, how you’re feeling, and then we all go off as a team,” Wilson says.
The third and final part of the program is about sustaining the connection. There’s a peer support program Wilson calls the “check-in team” where a handful of volunteers who have gone through a brief mental health training session wear small enamel pins with a check mark on them. Anyone wearing the pin is identified as a safe person to go to with issues big or small.
Participation in the wellness program is voluntary but Wilson says nearly everyone on staff participates.
“We have 97% participation or more,” Max Murtaugh, general manager, confirms.
Murtaugh believes the program is an invitation for people to “be their real selves so that we can work together better as a team behind the scenes.” He doesn’t feel like he’s preaching the wellness program to new employees; he wants to show it and let them come in on their own.
Wilson, who is nearly six years sober — along with her husband Jason Wilson, who is nearly eight years sober — hope that the wellness program will help manage the reason why someone wants to drink after work (or during) and that it gives them the tools to avoid a relapse.
“There’s a lot of people here who are sober. We don’t say that you have to be by any means, but we learn how to manage the reason why you might want to drink. We learn how to deal with that as a team together,” Wilson says.
But sobriety support and wellness doesn’t have to look like a three-month program at every restaurant.
A caring community
Similarly, wellness and mental health is at the forefront at the restaurant Eight Row. Willman and her fiancé David Nichols, chef and owner of Eight Row co-founded, the Seattle chapter of Ben’s Friends, a national community of service industry workers focused on recovery.
When Nichols, who is now nearly four years sober, opened Eight Row in 2019, hosting a Ben’s Friends meeting was an integral part of the culture at the restaurant.
“We don’t even do shift drinks here. That’s not a normal thing. And it was a normal thing, like cleaning the kitchen and the chef would bring back a 24 case of beer. I don’t remember the last time I saw something like that. And it’s due to the fact that people are talking about not just drinking, but mental health,” Nichols says.
In addition to hosting a weekly Ben’s Friends meeting (which Nichols says is open to anyone considering sobriety, no matter where you are on the journey or where you work), the staff at Eight Row also checks in with each other at every pre-shift meeting.
“We’re making good money and we’re busy, but you get something else out of it in that I really care about my peers and I know them. Everyone knows almost everything about each other because that’s how you’re going to get the best things out of each other,” Nichols says.
Willman says the shift in caring about each other in the restaurant industry is something she’s seen as a general shift in American culture as a whole — one that “goes away from people and the focus on the individual and the person to the focus on the group and the society.”
“By no means is this shift complete or will it ever be complete; I think a lot of the ire and the shadow that we see in this country is an adverse reaction to the former. We do want to care more about community I think and that’s why I am so hopeful, I don’t want to be skeptical about this anymore,” Willman says.
While the industry is in the middle of the throes of change at programmatic levels, servers like Lim are finding a way on their own.
Lim might not be working as a server anymore, but she’s still got a toe in the industry. Her mom, Lily, and stepdad, Hai Nan, moved here in 1998 and the trio spends about three mornings a week making dumplings together, perfecting recipes and waiting for a business license to come through for their frozen dumpling business, called Ram and Rooster.
It’s a business Lim originally started a decade ago with a friend, selling fresh dumplings made to order at farmers markets. She decided to keep the name but switch to frozen — and to add in her parents’ recipes.
“Now we’re pumping out dumplings. And I get to hang out with my mom, which is great. She’s 80, she’s a rock star and has more energy than I do,” Lim says.