A year ago, we lost Anthony Bourdain from suicide. Bourdain was a world-renowned celebrity chef, author, TV star, and travel documentarian. He inspired both those in and outside of the restaurant industry to love food. And perhaps most importantly, he taught us how food could unite cultures and bring people together.
Unfortunately, the suicide of Anthony Bourdain was neither the first nor last for the restaurant industry last year. In Sacramento, California alone, 12 people from the industry died in 2018 from suicide, substance use, or some other mental health-related problems. Suicide remains the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, with more than 47,000 completed suicides and an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in 2017.
These suicide statistics are just one part of an alarming set of observations highlighting the poor mental health of hospitality and restaurant workers. In fact, recent studies have shown that workers in the food and hospitality industry had a greater odds of reporting a depression than their counterparts working in non-tipped salaried industries. Furthermore, research has also shown that people in the service industry have some of the highest rates of substance use disorder of any job sector.
Yet, for most people reading this blog, we suspect you’ve probably never thought about the mental health of the people who make or serve your food when you dine out. With this post, we’re hoping to change that.
In this Said & Dunn two-part series, we honor the life of Anthony Bourdain by raising awareness about the hidden lives of workers in the restaurant industry. Here in this first installment, we sit down with LyAnna Sanabria, a decade-long veteran of the industry. LyAnna is currently the lead bartender at Chaval in Portland, Maine. In this Q&A, LyAnna opens-up about her personal struggles with addiction and the mental health secrets of the industry. We hope this post challenges you to think about the struggles those in the restaurant industry face and inspires you to be kinder each and every time you dine out from now on. We also hope it continues the conversation to raise awareness about suicide prevention and mental health.
Tell us a little bit about your job and how you got to be working in the service industry.
I got an academic scholarship to attend Boston University, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study, but I knew I needed to get the hell out of where I grew-up. Everyone was dropping like flies for one reason or another. Opioid addiction was devastating in my area, and there was a lot of tragedy for a very small amount of people. It’s not something people immediately think about when they think of Vermont, but I’m not even 30 and I’ve lost over 30 friends in my life from suicide, overdose, cancer, and murder.
I did whatever I had to do I had to get myself out, but I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was a first-generation college student…and I ended up in Boston. I remember my mom dropping me off in the parking lot [at Boston University] and then I was alone. Getting to Boston was wild for me, primarily because of money (I grew-up in an area that was very poor). I had no idea that people had access to the things they had access to. There were different levels where I felt very on the outside, and also where I felt very home. I got along with the Middle Eastern students very well. I went to a hookah lounge starting my first week there and they hired me immediately. I couldn’t afford to go [with my friends] but if I worked there, then I could hang out with them. That was my first experience in the service industry.
What was that experience like for you?
I would go to bed at 4 in the morning, which was something I did anyway. It felt normal. [At the hookah lounge] the lights were always dark, I didn’t have to worry about the bags under my eyes, I could smoke as many cigarettes as I wanted, I could be as drunk as I wanted, and we got to wear little black outfits and ignore that our insides were rotting. A couple years passed by there and I started working at a tequila bar and was an absolute train wreck. I was doing very well in school, but I could also drink a half gallon of tequila like that. But that’s how it was, and that’s what you went back for. You went back for the 2am comradery and the instant cash. There were no lights, no windows, no clocks, and I would walk out with 500 dollars in my hand feeling like an all-star every single night.
Sounds like it was an adrenaline rush – is that true?
It’s absolutely an adrenaline rush. I actually remind my coworkers that we’re “adrenaline junkies”. All of a sudden there’s too many things for you to do and you have to somehow put them all in a line. And there’s a lot of people who don’t understand what you’ve been through in your life and don’t care. That’s not why they came in. You’re their server. And you’re going to smile, and you better look damn good. You have 100 first impressions a night…. In the service industry, you have to be on point for every single one of those first impressions constantly, every 30 seconds, every 5 minutes, on top of the stress of your responsibilities. And you for sure had a beer before that shift because one way to handle impending doom is alcohol. At any moment you could mess up so badly that you don’t have a job. And that’s what makes drinking so appealing before your shift.
Was that common to have a drink before your shift? What’s the culture of substance use in the industry?
It’s rampant. I haven’t been around this “lifestyle” in a while because I’ve purposely separated myself and tried to find a healthy home within something that I like doing. I like being a bartender and I’ve had to learn how to separate it from addiction. On any given day I could probably find any drug available through the industry. Access is not a problem in the service industry. Uppers, downers, and a healthy mix of both to keep your personality high and inhibitions low. Not to mention most of us don't have health insurance so it's technically self medicating. You see a lot of pain killers, I think because there's a lot of pain, not just physical, and people would mix those with uppers because that’s how you’d get through the day. And that’s how one of your friends two years from now will die from a heart attack, an overdose, or suicide.
As scientists, we often wonder about cause and effect. Do you think people who have addiction or a propensity to addiction are attracted to the service industry? Or do you think there are elements of the service industry that make it easier for people to develop addiction-related problems?
I think it's both. We have access to instant cash, that…makes it so you can support drug use. For the kid after college who has all these bills and no idea what to do…the service industry is there. In any city, the money you earn is based off the standard wage of people who go out. It sounds impossible to live in San Francisco if you’re making minimum wage but, it is not impossible to live in San Francisco if you’re a bartender. You can also find friends [in the industry] who won’t look at you and judge you when you once again didn’t make it to breakfast or show-up to something, again, because you’re hungover, again. It becomes this community of coworkers, best friends, and crutches. There’s no given in this industry, day to day things change.
With that there is access and acceptance of mental illness. Instead of stigmatizing, we have these things in the service industry to normalize unhealthy habits and even glorify them. For example, one is called a “Daiquiri Time Out” (DTO). If you were to go and sit at the bar and order a DTO, the bartender would immediately know you’re “in”. DTO, shot-o-clock, safety meetings, are all code for let’s take a moment from getting yelled at and take a shot. We cope. It’s an instant escape and all of a sudden, the night looks different and we're much more social and our feet hurt less.
Where do you think the stress in the restaurant industry comes from?
It’s not humanly possible to greet and be kind to 80 people at once and also remember to not put mayo on something, and also remember that they have a shellfish allergy, and that someone doesn’t like the way you cut their lemons, and a customer’s grandfather had a heart attack last night and they’re struggling today and that will come off as extra needy. The type of person who is capable of doing that are often times type-A and snappy, sometimes like the chefs. We love the chefs that we work for, but they can also be monsters. They’re sometimes cold and there’s a lot of yelling. I’ve had a chef slam his fists down at me and scream profanities while he knocked 12 plates of food off the line because I didn’t hear what table he said to go to because everyone was yelling. It’s kind of the nature of the industry. The person who yells the most is also managing an insane amount of things at once. There’s a lot of chaos behind the scenes, except in this industry it’s very hard to keep it behind the scenes.
Do you think the experience and stress of being in the industry is similar everywhere? In other words, are all restaurants created equal or are some better or worse than others?
It’s as bad everywhere but there are some restaurant owners who are capable of changing the culture. I do believe that there are healthier ways that owners can change that experience, but I don’t think it matters the tier of restaurant you are going to. I think it matters the culture that is established and that can be anywhere. I worked at a bar where I would show up and the owner had already swept and mopped for me and instead of having to do any of those things, she would have a breakfast set out for me with a sweet little note about how to be positive for my day and that would be how I started my shift. I’ve also worked at a bar that I would be greeted with a shot of fernet. What the restaurant “allows” and cares about drastically changes an employees “access” to drugs/alcohol if you will.
Do you think there is a way to create a more mental health friendly environment in the industry?
Yes, there are ways to create a healthier environment. In my current situation, we do not drink on shift and there’s no such thing as a cigarette break. Nowhere on their premise will you do that. I think that’s helpful. It’s creating a culture. I also currently get paid every two weeks. That’s huge. It’s not like I have 400 dollars in my back pocket and the bars are open for two hours mindset.
As a bartender, you likely also see mental health issues not just among your peers, but among people on the other side of the bar. What are some of the ways you see addiction and mental health issues in the guests you serve?
As I’ve described, I’ve dealt personally with addiction and stress in the service industry, both with myself and my friends. But I also feel like there’s a certain type of customer that comes in and I help them a lot being who I am. This is the same type of person I would help if I were a doctor, lawyer, mother, owner of a women’s shelter, or had another profession. That person has many faces, except every one of them wants a huge warm hug. I give them a drink, which feels like a hug.
I always go back to my Pepere (my grandfather) when I try to put things into perspective. He’s a stubborn, 80-year old French Canadian who built his own house, doesn’t go out to eat, and thinks bars are only for men who cheat on their wives. He was recently in the hospital. Two of the surgeons who were treating him came down into the restaurant to say hi and give me a hug because they’re my regulars. It’s ironic because I’m always defending what I do for a living to my family, but me and the surgeon are doing the same thing today. I medicate surgeons. I medicate depression, I see a lot of vets and amputees. I see a lot of people with paranoid schizophrenia. I see a lot of teachers and nurses. I see a lot of people with low incomes and I see a lot of scientists. I work with a lot of people who are depressed and addicted and do a great job and I serve a lot of humans who choose food and alcohol as their escape. In this lifestyle that we go through, there’s the type of person who joins the industry and there’s the type of people that we serve. It’s kind of all-encompassing in terms of lifestyle and addiction.
What do you wish people knew about the service industry that they don’t?
That it’s an industry. That’s why we call it the service industry like any other job. Every single day like all the other Americans, I go into work. And my feet are tired, and I get irritated, and I’m human. Often people will look me dead in my face and say, “So what do you do?” We work our butts off for other people and then we get asked what we do. I think for a lot of people that’s a reason to drink. It’s like going to work every single day and people asking, “but when are you going to grow up?”
Did Anthony Bourdain’s suicide impact you in any way? Or others around you?
Yes, I actually saw a lot of people cry. Every day we have family meeting where we sit down, eat dinner together, and we go over the ruckus that is going to happen that evening. During that meeting one of the owners took a moment and said, “I’m sure all of you have heard, but if you haven’t heard we lost Anthony Bourdain today.” We lost a member of our community and that’s huge. I felt rocked because so many celebrities in the past few years have passed away. We lost a celebrity and that was a part of a community and therefore we feel touched but the other side of that is we lost another addict and that hurt my feelings a lot. And I personally have lost that, so I asked to speak at the meeting. I said power to all of you for being here still, for not giving up, because there’s no way that at least two people sitting in that room weren’t personally devastated.
Join us on June 25th – which is Anthony Bourdain’s birthday – for Part 2 – where we talk with Jenn Trebino-Wyllie, a 20-year native to the world of restaurants and hospitality. Jenn will share with us her interactions with Bourdain, her experiences in the industry, and her choice to leave it to focus on her own mental health.