Patrick Mulvaney’s first memorable lesson in social responsibility came when he was watching a race riot on TV in the 1960s. He asked his grandmother what was happening, and she told him a story. When she was a girl in New York City, she said, she remembers seeing a painted “Help Wanted” sign on the side of a factory that also declared, “Irish need not apply.” She told him the people on TV “were protesting because they’re being treated differently, and our job is to make sure that no one else gets treated like that again.”
That memory stuck with him, Mulvaney says, and came back in recent years as he was trying to figure out how to address the issues faced by another group that faces stigma and hardship: people going through troubles with their mental health, especially in the restaurant business. Mulvaney has worked in the industry since he finished college in the 80’s with an English degree that, he says, “qualified me to be a waiter in Manhattan.”
As he worked his way up to line cook, chef and then chef-owner of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan, a farm-to-table eatery in Sacramento, he saw first-hand the high rates of stress, substance use and mental health woes. People work fast, are under constant pressure, and can’t hide their mistakes — which often get them yelled at by their bosses. In 2018, four Sacramento restaurant workers died in a span of four weeks, including Noah Zonca, a longtime Sacramento chef who suffered from depression and addiction before drowning in a local river.
Mulvaney had been worried about Zonca, who became a good friend when they worked together in the late 1990s. After he died, Mulvaney and many people in the restaurant industry took it hard. “We started to say, as a community, ‘How could we let this happen? How could we let somebody who was so lively and so loved fall apart like that?’”
Research supports these worries. Almost 17 percent of people working in bars and restaurants grappled with substance use disorders during the previous year, the highest rate of any industry, according to a 2015 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And among people with a substance use disorder, the risk of attempting suicide is six times greater.
Shortly after Zonca’s death came more tragic news: Renowned chef, author and television host Anthony Bourdain had committed suicide. Mulvaney had already been talking with local mental health experts about ways to address the growing mental health crisis and Bourdain’s death accelerated the process. He began working with leaders at health care organizations including Kaiser Permanente, WellSpace Health and Innovation Learning Network to craft a solution.
The result was I Got Your Back, a system designed to help restaurant workers look out for each other. “The idea is to have someone in the restaurant who’s eligible to talk with you, refer you to mental health resources, keep an eye out if they if they think you’re in trouble, and ask you whether you need that help,” says Mulvaney.
Interested workers can take a training called Mental Health First Aid, which at least one person on every shift has done. They wear a purple hand logo on their uniforms and are available to talk to anyone who wants to. A website, www.igotyourback.info, aims to “86 mental health stigma” and offers resources like text and phone lines where people can get help.
Mulvaney’s wife and co-owner Bobbin designed a simple system to take the emotional temperature of staff members. “She drew a happy face, an angry face, a neutral face and a face that we call ‘in the weeds’ — which is restaurant speak for you’re f — -ed,” says Mulvaney. These were made into cards and each day, when people arrive, they punch in and select the card that corresponds to their emotional state that day.
“You just drop a card in, don’t think about it: How are you feeling today?” says Mulvaney “And then at lineup we discuss: Here’s what we have for special tonight. We have this beer on tap. This wine just came in. Two celebrities are coming for dinner. Let’s check the temperature. Eight people are happy. Four people are neutral. There’s one angry and there’s three blues. If you’re one of those struggling blues, what can we do to help you?”
The kitchen — and even the dining room — of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan (the name is a nod to the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life”) has information on mental health resources available to people in need. And last December, staff members in 12 other Sacramento restaurants took part in the training.
The program seemed to be having impact. Managers and workers at the other restaurants told Mulvaney that people were more willing to talk about issues. Partners providing mental health services and referrals reported an increase in calls. Then, as Mulvaney was hatching plans to take the idea national — Covid-19 brought the restaurant industry to a screeching halt.
“It was horrible to have to say to 50 people that the promise I made to you of meaningful employment I can’t keep,” says Mulvaney. Still, he and his colleagues have done their best to keep having each other’s backs. They organized a text messaging network with group chats for kitchen workers and waiters and bussers, in both Spanish and English.
“Everybody was reaching out and making sure that they were taking care of the most vulnerable,” says Mulvaney. “When we had leadership meetings on Mondays, the conversation always started with, how is everyone doing? I checked on this person. I checked on that person.”
The entire staff is invited to come in on Thursdays and pick up a “family meal” — the name universally given to staff meals at restaurants — to take home. That also gives Mulvaney and his team a chance to connect face-to-face (with masks and six feet of separation).
Mulvaney’s is also one of five Sacramento restaurants participating in a program to cook meals delivered to local seniors. They started the effort with private money, and now Governor Gavin Newsom wants to take it statewide, with most of the funding coming from FEMA.
These efforts have allowed Mulvaney to bring back some of the staff to cook, giving them income and a sense of satisfaction. “Folks have said how great it is to be part of helping,” Mulvaney. “Restaurants for me have always been about bringing people to the table, weaving the fabric of our community together. We’re still trying to carry that out.”