More Bay Area restaurants are closing for mental health breaks

In late July, Peterson Harter, feeling burned out, shut down his San Francisco sandwich pop-up Sandy’s for a weekend.

That one weekend turned into three as he slipped into a deep depression. His couch felt like a pool of quicksand, pulling him into a dark place where something as simple as brushing his teeth or picking up a phone call from his best friend felt insurmountable. The weight of the last year-plus — the pandemic capsizing all sense of normalcy, losing his restaurant job, throwing himself into baking bread 18 hours a day to survive — collapsed on him.

“I was giving more than I had to give,” Harter said.

Harter’s is among a wave of Bay Area restaurants and pop-ups that have recently closed temporarily to give time off to overworked employees feeling the mental and physical drain of working during the pandemic. Businesses that never closed for extensive breaks before, including prominent San Francisco restaurant the Morris and popular Berkeley cafe Bartavelle, shut down despite high demand and a need to make up for pandemic-inflicted losses.

This moment feels particularly trying, they say: Besides uncertainty about the delta variant, a shortage of workers means that even one person taking a day or two off creates extra work for others.

Many restaurant workers have found employment in other industries or left the Bay Area. But those who stayed say they’re feeling more stressed than ever. Big Table, a Washington-based nonprofit that connects hospitality workers to mental health care, said referrals shot up more than 400% in 2020 and started to spike again in the last few weeks.

The businesses that are taking breaks are the lucky ones; some don’t feel they can, fearing the financial losses or because staffers need the work. But more owners are now talking about it frankly in hopes of challenging the status quo in an industry that often demands personal sacrifice.

“Not only do we face the same fears and worries that the general public does, but we’re also relied upon for having a smile on our face and making people feel good about themselves for a night and to forget about the reality of the world,” said Blake Cole of Oakland bar Friends and Family, who said her business can’t afford a break. “It’s becoming harder and harder to put our own emotions aside to provide that to people — and I don’t think we should be.”

Peterson Harter recently closed his sandwich pop-up Sandy’s for a break. He surfs to fight his depression.

Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle

The restaurant industry is known for its long hours, physically demanding work and stigma around mental health issues, though that’s started to shift in recent years. Harter, who’s worked in acclaimed San Francisco restaurants such as Benu and the Progress, said it was ingrained in him to push through feelings of burnout. Taking a break or asking for help felt “laughable,” he said.

When the pandemic hit, existing stresses compounded. Restaurant staffers found themselves internalizing anxiety about their health and livelihoods while serving customers who are often increasingly difficult. Owners, meanwhile, have had to pivot their business models over and over again to keep their doors open.