When employees clock into work at Mulvaneys B&L, a popular farm-to-table restaurant in Sacramento, California, they’re encouraged to slip one of four color-coded cards into a cardboard box. The cards have faces on them: one is happy, one is angry, one is neutral and one is stressed (in restaurant parlance, that’s “in the weeds.”)

“It’s like the pain signs at hospitals,” explains co-owner Patrick Mulvaney. Though the cards are anonymous, they give employees a chance to assess their own moods and share them with the manager or the peer helper on duty. During the staff’s pre-service meeting, the manager can share how many angry or stressed employees there are that day and ask if anyone needs additional support, empathy, or patience.

The box, which was co-owner (and Patrick’s wife) Bobbin Mulvaney’s idea, is just one measure put in place by I Got Your Back, a year-old peer-to-peer counseling program that the Mulvaneys helped start in response to several suicides in the Sacramento restaurant community in early 2018. In May of that year, Noah Zonca, the beloved, larger-than-life longtime chef of Sacramento’s the Kitchen, where Mulvaney also worked, died by suicide. He was one of 12 Sacramento restaurant workers to die by suicide that year. A month later, the issue of restaurant industry suicides was thrust into the spotlight when celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain hanged himself in a hotel in Alsace, France.  

Frankie Lopez, a manager at Mulvaneys B&L, and bartender Dan Mitchell. Photo courtesy Patrick Mulvaney

Even before Zonca’s death, the Mulvaneys had been having conversations with Sacramento chefs and restaurant owners, health care professionals, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, state senators and even Governor Gavin Newsom about how to tackle mental health issues in the hospitality industry. But the losses of Zonca and Bourdain added a sense of urgency. The final iteration of I Got Your Back came out of a design workshop at the Innovation Learning Network conference in October 2018. With the financial support of the James Beard Foundation and all four major area health systems — Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health and the UC Davis Medical Center — a pilot was launched in September 2019.

Restaurant workers are especially prone to mental health and substance abuse issues. As journalist Kat Kinsman, founder of the blog Chefs with Issueshas written, “People who deal with mental health and addiction issues are drawn to this work because it has always been a haven for people who exist on the fringes; restaurant jobs have brutal hours and often pay very little and don’t offer health care; there is easy access to alcohol and illicit substances; and workers have traditionally been rewarded for their masochism — shut up and cook.” 


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