Helping the Restaurant Industry Help Itself

James Courtney

To fix an industry he loves, San Antonio’s Joel Rivas had to take a leap of faith.

A former hospital business department employee who specializes in development, Rivas may seem like an unlikely ally to stressed and harassed restaurant workers, yet he’s turned his genuine compassion for their plight into an innovative solution hip enough for your Insta feed and deep enough to promise meaningful change.

After being laid off from a longtime job in the hospital industry, Rivas vowed to work on something more deeply fulfilling. Apparently, helping healthcare systems with business plans just “wasn’t something [he] was truly passionate about.” With Saint City Supper Club (SCSC), which launched in March, and the attached Saint City Culinary Foundation (SCCF), he’s reignited an enduring passion: food.

A restaurant worker in his younger years (doing everything from dishwashing and line cooking to bartending and waiting tables), an occasional business advisor in San Antonio’s culinary field, and a foodie in general, Rivas gravitated back toward the industry when mulling his next move. “Throughout history, there’s just always been something fundamental and magical about the experience of breaking bread with other people,” Rivas explained over the phone earlier this month.

In San Antonio, a tourism-driven city, restaurants are a vital part of the economic fabric and are helping the city standout as a top destination. With ample opportunities and two well regarded culinary schools (including an outpost of the Culinary Institute of America), there’s a ton of fresh talent just looking for the right kitchen opportunity.

Rivas’s instincts directed him to supper clubs, both for the flexible scheduling and as a way to provide a venue for and some buzz around the “many talented individuals in [San Antonio’s culinary industry] that are undiscovered gems.”

Plus, supper clubs are cool right now, in San Antonio and elsewhere. As folks seek alternatives to digital isolation and the superficiality of social media, supper clubs provide the analog experience of long, intimate dinners. “[It’s] a way for people passionate about food, drink, and community to come together,” said Rivas. (No harm that these meals also tend to provide some Instagram-able moments.)

SCSC dinners, which are ticketed events for 24-30 attendees, range from multi-course affairs prepared by top or emergent chefs around the state, to madcap “throwdowns” between local culinary stars, dueling for the delight of the crowd.

This fall, after hosting a slew of well-received dinners in offbeat locations, Rivas has officially launched the second phase of his masterplan: Saint City Culinary Foundation.

“I always had the idea that once this got off the ground, I wanted to use it to help others,” Rivas said of the impetus for the foundation, which is licensed by the State of Texas as a 501(c)(3) and has a five-person board of directors. For the moment, SCCF has two main areas of focus, which address two very different restaurant industry ills.

For starters, the foundation will look to uplift women in the culinary arts. Citing his 11-year-old daughter’s blossoming interest in cooking coupled with his own observation of the access and environmental challenges women endure in the restaurant industry, Rivas’s foundation will fund scholarships, provide mentors, and generally offer support to women chefs and chefs to-be.

It’s really no big secret that professional kitchens, in fine dining and everywhere else, can be some of the most intolerable boys’ clubs. Restaurant Opportunities Center United has consistently found that more than a third of all sexual harassment claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry. A 2014 report from the advocacy group showed that two-thirds of women survey respondents said they were harassed by managers, and 80 percent said they were harassed by coworkers. For a timely example, look no further than last month’s scandal involving New Orleans restauranteur John Besh and 25 female employees.

Couple that environment with grueling hours, an aggressively macho culture, and discrimination based on the mistaken notion that women can’t otherwise thrive in a physically demanding, high-stress kitchen, and it’s no wonder many women on the line burn out.

Rivas believes that the unfair demands on women in hospitality can be challenged through more educational opportunities, better peer support systems, and one-on-one mentoring with women professionals who have made their way against the odds.

As its other primary focus, SCCF wants to address the widespread issue of addiction in the food services industry. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, between 2008 and 2012 the highest rates of illicit drug use were found in the accommodations and food services industry, with a 19.1 percent rate of illicit drug use and a 16.9 percent rate of substance use disorder. This problem, featured most notably by food writer Kat Kinsmen and celebrity chef/lovable globetrotting gadfly Anthony Bourdain, is one that Rivas has personally faced.

Back when he worked in the field, Rivas developed a serious cocaine addiction. In the nights-and-weekends service industry, Rivas noted, “your work family ends up becoming your social family because you work the same hours.” The fact that “it’s a high-pressure environment and you usually get off late” can be a breeding ground for “negative habits that become hard to escape” said Rivas, as coping with drugs and alcohol seemed to be tacitly supported by coworkers and industry friends, many with their own substance abuse issues.

“For me, family and support groups helped,” Rivas said, “but I know not everyone has family or access to good therapy and support groups.” To that end, SCCF will start addiction therapy groups targeted to the food and service industries.

Joel Rivas, center, welcomes guests to a recent "master class" to benefit Saint City Culinary Foundation. Photo by Louie Preciado.

Joel Rivas, center, welcomes guests to a recent “master class” to benefit Saint City Culinary Foundation. Photo by Louie Preciado.

While many options for addiction treatment exist, Rivas knows that restaurant workers who face these issues often have no access to healthcare (due to low wages and limited employee benefits) and even less hope of beginning the healing process on their own. Having industry-specific support groups where cooks, servers, managers, bartenders, and other restaurant personnel share their experiences is a necessity for truly addressing the field’s toxic tolls on mental health and wellness.

“Unless somebody has been in this very specific field, it’s hard for them to really understand,” Rivas explained.

“Having people in group therapy that I was accountable to really helped me,” he continued, “and I just feel like if people had this sort of buddy system with other people in the industry it could be even more powerful because it’s easier to open up, easier to accept support, and easier when someone calls bullshit on you.”

While proceeds from each supper club go toward the foundation (after costs are covered), SCCF’s ambitions require additional fundraising. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of food-based ideas to drum up donations. SCCF recently hosted its first “Master Class,” where attendees pay to learn from industry notables. In the coming months, in addition to a membership drive (members get access to special events and guaranteed spots at the supper clubs) and more Master Classes, SCCF will host smaller donor-focused dinners, while also seeking corporate sponsorships and grants.

The goal, according to Rivas, is to begin the group therapy programs in the second quarter of 2018 and to offer scholarships starting fall semester of the 2018-2019 academic year.

“Big dream-wise, I would eventually love to see something like this implemented in other large markets to positively impact as many people as possible,” Rivas said.

After all, addiction and sexism know no geographic boundaries, but neither does the public’s appetite for a delicious dinner with friends. It’s Rivas’s belief that by doing what it does best— creating that convivial, slightly luxurious, atmosphere—the restaurant industry just might be able to save itself.