‘I don’t want to see a dozen people die.’ A restaurateur’s effort to fight suicide and drug abuse
As fans around the world Tuesday mark what would have been the 63rd birthday of celebrity chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain, organizers of a grassroots movement in Sacramento restaurants are expanding their efforts to foster a kitchen culture that supports the mental health of its workers.
Head chef Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney’s B&L in midtown Sacramento said Bourdain’s suicide last June in part inspired “I Got Your Back,” a movement that pushes for open discussion and easy access to professional mental health resources in the service community – through simple measures piloted at B&L.
In the next two months, “I Got Your Back” will pilot in 22 restaurants in Sacramento, with hopes to go statewide – and even national.
In a business as grueling as the restaurant industry, such support is badly needed, Mulvaney said. From standing in front of a grill on a 100-degree day to managing 200 guests in one night, the fast-paced, stressful environment can take a dangerous toll on mental health. Workers turn to drugs and drinking to alleviate stress.
“We live in this pool everyday where you’re pretty close to failure and sometimes the water comes up above your nose,” Mulvaney said. “Most of us have that strength to kick up and get another breath but we know that sometimes someone can’t. That’s the whole point of ‘I Got Your Back.’”
Mulvaney and his wife, Bobbin, founded the movement in October 2018 in partnership with the Innovation Learning Network.
Only two months after Mulvaney piloted the program, he said he could see restaurant culture shifting. After the death of a B&L server on Christmas Eve – one of four people with Sacramento restaurant ties who died in a five-week span this winter – Mulvaney gathered his employees together before opening for the new year.
“We came together as a family to talk about it before we opened,” Mulvaney said. “I saw all of our staff using the tools we provided for them to talk about it. Our team was coming together to have that conversation and support each other.”
At the beginning of each shift as employees clock in, they slip a mood card into a box to indicate anger, happiness, stress, and sadness. Right before the rush of service begins, the cards are laid out, and employees can assess the general mood of their peers.
“It’s super simplistic but super powerful,” Mulvaney said. “It creates conversation throughout the restaurant. That has changed the tenor of the restaurant.”
During each shift, one employee is designated as the individual to keep a watchful eye on others. The employee will wear a purple lapel, and will reach out to those who are struggling, or be open to conversation with anyone who needs help.
In the next two months, “I Got Your Back” will pilot in 22 restaurants in Sacramento. They include Taylor’s Kitchen, Mother, Empress, Binchoyaki, Scott’s Seafood, Selland’s East Sac, Selland’s Broadway, Selland’s El Dorado, Ella Dining Room and Bar, OBO’ Italian Table & Bar, The Kitchen, Canon, Randy Peters Catering, Waterboy, Golden Bear, Chocolate Fish, Rio City Café, The Snug, de Vere’s Irish Pub, Kru, Hook & Ladder, and Mulvaney’s B&L.
Data and interviews will be collected, and once the program has been improved, “I Got Your Back” hopes to spread to other cities in California.
“We’re getting national inquiries,” said Christine Ault, spokeswoman for “I Got Your Back.” “There’s a belief this has a scalability in any restaurant, any city, any industry.”
Mulvaney said that Monday his restaurant’s monthly family dinner honored the man who helped inspire “I Got Your Back” with a menu that reminded him of Bourdain, featuring frisée aux lardons, Sunday gravy with macaroni, trout grenobloise and soft espresso cream.
“It’s a way to celebrate his life,” Mulvaney said. “Bourdain was the first person who defined cooks and the restaurant culture as something worthy of observation. He made people intrigued by it.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at (800) 273-8255.