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This Colorado restaurant hired a therapist to help employees with industry stress

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Restaurant jobs have always been difficult, but the mental stress has gotten worse during the pandemic as restaurants closed to cut hours or became ground zeroes for fights over masks. Now a major restaurant group in Denver's found another way to support their workers, as John Daley at Colorado Public Radio explains.

JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: Many restaurants have had to raise wages and find other ways to keep servers like Nikki Perri (ph) on the job. She works at French 75....

NIKKI PERRI: Perfect. You are excellent. Come on this way, and I'll take you to the table.

DALEY: ...A restaurant in downtown Denver

PERRI: It is totally nerve-wracking sometimes 'cause all of my tables I'm interacting with aren't wearing their masks.

DALEY: Perri is 23, a DJ and music producer, and has worries not just about her own health.

PERRI: I'm more nervous about my partner. He's disabled. He doesn't have the greatest immune system.

DALEY: Nikki Perri is not alone in feeling that stress. After the initial pandemic shutdown, the restaurant had trouble finding employees. Chef and owner Frank Bonanno wanted to know what it would take to get them back to work.

FRANK BONANNO: We put a SurveyMonkey out, and pay was No. 3. Mental health was No. 1 - that employees wanted security and mental health and then pay.

DALEY: His company, Bonanno Concepts, owns 10 Denver restaurants. He says the employees have good insurance, but it doesn't usually cover mental health well.

F BONANNO: Most psychologists and psychiatrists are out of pocket, and we were looking for a way to make our employees happy.

DALEY: That, says his wife and co-owner Jacqueline, was when they had a revelation. Let's hire a full-time mental health clinician.

JACQUELINE BONANNO: No. I know of no other restaurants that are doing this - groups or individual restaurants. It's a pretty big leap of faith.

QIANA TORRES FLORES: Hey, everyone. I'm Qiana. I'm the wellness director here at Bonanno Concepts, and I'm going to teach you a hand stretch today.

DALEY: Qiana Torres Flores got the job. She'd worked as a licensed professional counselor and in community mental health but jumped at the chance to create something new.

FLORES: Especially in the restaurant and hospitality industry, that stress bucket is really full a lot of the time. I think having someone in this kind of capacity can be really useful.

DALEY: Flores has taught stress reduction techniques and led mediation sessions for the company's 400 employees. She produced a Santa's mental health workshop to help with holiday-related sadness and grief. She's done one-on-one therapy and referred a few employees to more specialized help elsewhere.

FLORES: Not only is there help, but it's literally 5 feet away from you, and it's free, and it's confidential.

DALEY: Flores is six months into this new adventure. The owners say her presence gives them a competitive advantage, and they hope it helps with retention. Restaurant employees often work crazy hours, can be prone to substance use issues but have a grind-it-out mentality.

ABBY HOFFMAN: It has been a really important option and a resource for our team right now.

DALEY: Abby Hoffman (ph) is general manager at French 75.

HOFFMAN: I think the conversation really started around the death of Anthony Bourdain, knowing how important mental health and caring for ourselves was.

DALEY: The death by suicide of Bourdain, who openly struggled with addiction and mental health troubles, resonated with many restaurant workers. Then, Hoffman says, came the pandemic.

HOFFMAN: We were again able to say, this is so stressful and scary, and we need to be able to talk about this.

DALEY: She speaks for an entire industry. One survey found a third of Colorado restaurants got requests for mental health services from their employees in the past year. More than 3 out of 4 restaurants reported a rise in customer aggression. Again, restaurant co-owner Jacqueline Bonanno.

J BONANNO: We have a generation of people who have been dealing with mass shooter drills, who have now gone through a pandemic, who were fired en masse from their jobs. And if as a society we can't provide those resources, then maybe as an employer we can.

DALEY: One member of that generation, server Nikki Perri, says she's grateful to her employers, who...

PERRI: Actually do care about us and see us as humans. I think that's great.

DALEY: She says other places should catch up, which could be a positive legacy for the hospitality industry from an otherwise tough time.

For NPR News, I'm John Daley in Denver.

SIMON: And that story comes from NPR's partnership with Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.