Putting the team first

By Hannah Massen

Rootstock Community Foundation addresses mental healthcare of restaurant employees

Even if you’ve never worked in the food service industry, movies like Boiling Point and shows like Sweetbitter give an (albeit dramatic) impression of what it’s like to work in a restaurant. From the energy and focus required on the floor to the near-simmering heat and pressure in the kitchen, restaurant shifts can be intense. 

Combine the general atmosphere of a packed restaurant with the uncertainty and staff shortages caused by the pandemic, and it’s no wonder you’ll spot cooks and waiters on the sidewalk at night, aprons finally off, savoring every breath of cool air until they’re back in the frying pan tomorrow. 

No matter how seasoned a chef or staff member is, the pressure of the food service industry can take a toll on one’s mental health – something that owners of FARM Bluffton know all too well. 

“I think that if you work in [food and beverage industry] long enough, there are inevitably going to be demons that you have to face,” owner and chef Brandon Carter said. “The industry is becoming a little warm and friendly, but I came up in a time when the restaurant industry was toxic. There have been times when I thought the pressure was going to crush me. This is one of those jobs that must become a way of life to excel. You eat, sleep and breathe work.”

When Carter opened the award-winning restaurant six years ago, he felt that things took a turn for the better. For the first time in his career, he was able to open the kind of restaurant – and be the kind of boss – he knew the industry needed. 

After a few “rock-bottom moments” and some sound advice from his business partner, Ryan Williamson, Carter realized that the traditional restaurant management style wouldn’t be sustainable for him or his employees.

“We’ve really started putting our team first,” Carter said. “Initiatives like a reasonable work schedule for our leaders, four-day work weeks for our hourly team (when possible), treating each other with respect and dignity, and livable wages from the bottom to the top are just a few examples of how we’re trying to be the change we want to see.” 

And the FARM team hasn’t stopped there. 

The restaurant is known for using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, but the restaurant’s Lowcountry roots run deeper still. FARM has partnered with several nonprofit organizations, including Bluffton Self Help, to give back to our community but is now focused on supporting the people who make restaurants like FARM possible. 

In 2021 FARM’s three partners, Carter, Williamson and Alan Sheriff, established the Rootstock Community Foundation in partnership with Common Thread Savannah to serve both the food and beverage communities of Bluffton, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, by addressing the mental healthcare of restaurant employees.

Rootstock also partnered with PsychHub, the world’s most comprehensive digital platform for mental health education, to provide online mental health education resources and screening tools to restaurant employees. PsychHub’s co-founder, Marjorie Morrison, sits on Rootstock’s Board of Advisors.

“I think that we need to prove that we can move the needle locally before we look regionally or nationally,” Carter said. Once we feel good about our model, I think it’s about replicating it in other markets where we can identify like-minded partners.”

Rootstock hosts a free, one-hour yoga class for food and beverage professionals in the Lowcountry and Savannah areas every month at Service Brewing, though the management team hopes to begin hosting weekly classes soon. 

The organization is also working on a class to help equip leaders with the tools to be able to see and assist members of their team who may be in a mental health crisis and has tied all of its guest chef dinners to Rootstock in order to donate 10 percent of their proceeds to the foundation. 

Ashely Cope, one of FARM’s two event coordinators alongside Jessica Carter, said that Rootstock’s first yoga class, which was hosted in July, was a success. 

“We were pretty happy with the turnout and hope to continue to grow that program and more programs to come,” Cope said.

Rootstock may be the first foundation of its kind in the Lowcountry, but Carter hopes the organization will have a national impact. 

“So many of us crave a better work-life balance, but that’s hard to achieve in the restaurant industry,” Carter said. “We hope that Rootstock will inspire restaurant employees – not just in the Lowcountry, but nationally – to make the most of their time outside of work, too.”

To donate to Rootstock, visit rootstockcommunityfoundation.org.


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