Restaurants offer workers healthy lifestyle options

Yoga classes are an example of the hospitality industry's attempt to combat stress and unhealthy habits common to the business. "I need this as much as they need it," said yoga instructor Maria Cuscavage (left).

Every Monday at noon on the dot, the intoxicating cooking smells wafting out of the kitchen of American Sardine Bar are met with a little olfactory competition: burning incense. A few feet from the fryer and flattop grill, a small group of practitioners do their part to convert the top floor of the Point Breeze beer bar into a temporary yoga studio, bending and stretching on the hardwood floor per the directions of instructor Maria Cuscavage.

Though it charges no admission, it's an exclusive club - open only to the employees of ASB and its sister bar, the South Philadelphia Tap Room, where Cuscavage has worked for the last seven years. Certified to instruct the flow-based Vinyasa style of yoga, she views these weekly classes as cathartic for her coworkers and beneficial for her own career outside the bar; they allow her to hone her teaching style for private clients. "I do follow yoga practices, but I also work in a bar most of the week," she says. "I need this as much as they need it."

It's one small example of how restaurants are finding new ways to invest in the well-being of their workers beyond health insurance, counteracting the heavy-pressure profession with creative programming that addresses the industry's penchant for hard labor and harder partying.

According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry employs more than 14 million people. The on-the-clock realities for this huge cross section of the American workforce - abnormally long hours, high stress levels, the close association with consumption - have translated to a deeply ingrained reputation for excess that isn't flattering.

There is a certain romance to the archetypal hard-driving restaurant employee who sacrifices his or her own health to boost the noble goal of hospitality. Putting personal needs below those of the real boss, the guest, has long been accepted and even encouraged - necessitating a candid conversation about quality of life.

"We're so focused in hospitality in taking care of everyone else. When do we find time to take care of ourselves?" asks John Patterson, executive chef of Fork in Old City. "If you're burning the candle on both ends, how do you handle the adversity you have to deal with?"

The management team at Fork, which also counts High Street on Market, a.kitchen, and New York City's High Street on Hudson among its properties, offers discounted gym memberships to its employees. And they are far from the only local restaurant team that believes improving the physical state of employees translates to serious returns on the dining room floor.

An avid runner and CrossFitter, Jezabel Careaga, owner of the Argentine-flavored Jezabel's Cafe in Fitler Square, experimented with free gym memberships for her workers but noticed few were opting in. Her solution: engage her 10 employees more directly by scheduling bootcamp-style workouts every Tuesday. The more structured approach has boosted interest.

"In the back of my mind, I kept thinking: If exercise has such a big impact in my life, why shouldn't it have an impact in theirs?" says Careaga. "The main idea is engagement, so I can reduce turnover, and teamwork."

Like ASB, Honeygrow, the burgeoning fast-casual chain, works yoga into its offerings for its internal staff, hosting regular Vinyasa classes in its Fishtown headquarters. They're led by chief brand officer Jen Denis, who also organizes regular Center City "run clubs" attended by Honeygrow employees as well as customers. (She also teaches yoga professionally outside the company.)

"A lot of us in this office are OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] types, and this forces you to focus on something different," says Denis, who leads sessions before and after the workday, at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. "People have told me they feel better and are able to do things better afterward."

Philadelphia's larger restaurant collectives have taken to the in-house exercise trend on a larger scale. Chef Jose Garces' Garces Group, which operates 14 restaurants across the country, offers discounted Sweat Fitness memberships to employees; they also have access to yoga hosted in the rooftop garden of the Kimmel Center, which houses Garces' high-end Volvér.

Chef Marc Vetri's family of restaurants, which was acquired by Urban Outfitters in February, concentrates its workout perks in its Naval Yard headquarters, specifically in a multiuse space known as Building 543. There, the group's 350-plus employees can take advantage of weight training, yoga, fitness classes, and other activities.

Brad Spence, chef and partner in Vetri's Roman trattoria Amis, works out in 543 twice a week, on top of his Monday-Wednesday-Friday boxing sessions off-campus. "It's the most positive drug you could ever take," says Spence, who openly discusses his struggles with alcohol as a young cook in the intense New York City kitchens of Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio. (He has been sober for 13 years.)

Citing the physical stamina and mental clarity his workout routine grants him on the line, Spence takes it upon himself to encourage his younger line cooks to follow his lead. "I'm always trying to push them to go to the gym, go for a run," he says. "I encourage them to the point of being annoying."

For Patterson, at Fork, boosting quality of life for his employees is not limited to stuff that makes you sweat. He's also led trips to Journee Colab, a New York City educational gathering space for restaurant workers that offers inexpensive hospitality instruction from topflight industry leaders. In-demand classes include sommelier-led wine tasting and seminars on management and hospitality finance, but Journee also explores issues like substance abuse and healthy living, which was the primary focus of July's programming.

Journee was founded by Anthony Rudolf, a Bucks County native whose first hospitality job was at the DoubleTree hotel on Broad Street. He went on to work for Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller, developing a serious alcohol problem along the way. A drunken-driving arrest served as a wake-up call to turn his life around, eventually leading him to found Journee as a way to tackle serious topics that are rarely addressed in a restaurant environment.

"The biggest challenge is culture," says Rudolf. "We're now actually starting to talk about it."