Have you wondered lately, Is it just me, or is the wait staff at this place getting older?
At first glance, this would seem like a good thing. With age comes a maturity not always exhibited by a younger service staff. Gone are the typical hallmarks of the immature set: the late drunken hours after (or during) a shift; the steady procession of hook-ups at the hostess stand; being tardy for work, if they show up at all. What has replaced them would appear to be a more seasoned class of labor, one that understands the value of the cash tip and how far it will go toward paying the mortgage. A creative class, even, that appreciates that the service industry lifestyle can support a second career as an artist, a musician, or a writer.
But years of repetitive behavior—humping trays full of food, hefting buckets of ice, standing over a hot stove shaking a sauté pan—take their toll. Wear and tear settle into old bones. And absent a labor force with a collective voice and the benefits it might demand—health care, paid time off, consistent schedules, and worker protections—restaurant employees are often required to seek alternative options for self-care.
Aubrey Zinaich-Howell, general manager of Nana's in Durham, recognized this issue early in her restaurant career. To combat the high-stress environment of front-of-the-house management, she turned to yoga.
"Yoga helped build flexibility, but more important was the mind-body connection," Zinaich-Howell says. "That's incredibly helpful when you're working in the service industry. You always have this sense of urgency while you're working, which creates a high level of stress and cortisol in your body. Your blood pressure goes up. Your reaction time goes up. Part of what yoga does is it really helps your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you deal with stress better."
Recognizing that the benefits yoga contributed to her fast-paced professional life, Zinaich-Howell saw value in extending it to the rest of the restaurant staff. She went to Global Breath Studio in downtown Durham, purchased a corporate pass, then made it possible for all her employees to participate in free yoga classes.
Nana's employee Adam Sobsey says he recognized the value of Zinaich-Howell's offer immediately. Sobsey (also an INDY contributor), was plagued by muscular soreness. He jumped at the opportunity.
"Restaurant work is more physically taxing than it looks," Sobsey says. "You run around for six, seven hours, five nights a week, and never give it much thought until you stop one day to wonder why your body doesn't feel so hot in the morning, or why it's become too easy for me to bend over to tie my shoe and throw out my back. It's by no means cured me of all my little—and sometimes not so little—aches and pains, but it's helped my body, and also my mind and psyche as well."
Massage is another alternative for wellness. Sarah Pryor, a former Rue Cler hostess who has her own massage practice, understands all too well what specialized attention can do for folks used to the fast-paced lifestyle of the service industry.
"People in the service industry are on their feet a lot, and that's really fatiguing," Pryor says. "I know, after a long shift, folks may be ready to sit down and feel pretty tired, especially the older we get. Massage is a really good overall health care technique, especially for those carrying heavy trays or performing repetitive motions. It creates a lot of tension, and massage helps take out the tension."
In an industry fueled by alcohol sales and overconsumption, many self-medicate after a shift, often at a neighborhood bar over rounds of Grand Mariner or Fireball. Over time, this leads to other issues. Efforts such as Ben's Friends—a support group for service industry workers pursuing sobriety—have taken root in the Triangle.
Health care continues to dominate national dialogue. But restaurant workers rarely have to keep it moving. And until the general apathy for their well-being is 86'ed, they'll find substitutions.