Looking back, it’s surprising that I didn’t see burnout coming. Clearly, as an over-achieving motivated personality type, I was bound to burnout at some point. But I didn’t see it coming. I’d love to solely blame covid, but the truth is, that plus my own never quit personality type were a toxic mix.
Prior to covid, I was 3 ½ years into running my farm to table fast casual restaurant (called Locavores) in Alamosa, Colorado. After years in the corporate world, I was motivated and inspired to use my creativity and business acumen in my own entrepreneurial endeavor. In addition, I was hopeful to create an environment where customers and employees felt happy, supported and energized for life. As all entrepreneurs know, the early days of a start up are the roughest. By Spring of 2020 we had made it through these rough parts and were starting to see the fruits of our labor. I was ready for a break.
In between scrolling through travel blogs, I started reading reports of widespread illness in Italy. Although it hadn’t really made it to the U.S. (knowingly) yet, it stopped me in my tracks. In my gut I knew what was going to happen. Well, let me take that back. I didn’t know ALL that would happen. Who could? I just knew it was coming and I knew my business was about ready to be impacted in a big way. As a baby business, I knew we might not survive this. That day happened to be Tuesday, March 10, 2020. That would be the last day I would live without a heightened sense of anxiety and adrenaline pumping through my veins for a year and a half.
That day, I sat in my office at the restaurant and watched my employees working in the kitchen laughing with each other. As I saw the Mack truck of covid heading our way, I felt hopeless and helpless knowing they would soon all be without jobs. I shut the door and put my head in my heads and said to myself, “there’s just nothing you can do. This is too big for you”. My stomach churned with anxiety (as it does when my stress level is at a 10) and my neck and shoulders ached. I wasn’t used to giving up. This was new for me. But how could I overcome this tsunami coming our way?
Then, a small voice inside my head said, “Wait, you’re not a quitter. There is always a solution, find it.” As I watched more news, I saw huge lines at grocery stores. There it was. Bingo. We’d start a market and sell all our raw ingredients. As a restaurant our supply chain was different than that of a grocery store’s, so we had greater access to the products people needed. Eventually restaurants across the country would do similar things. I hadn’t seen anyone else doing it. I had no idea if it would work, but I had to do something. I couldn’t go down without a fight.
By Friday of that week, we had health department approval, our products listed on online ordering, and created a sub brand. We launched the new market on Saturday. I wasn’t optimistic. Who would buy groceries from a restaurant? Tons of people, that’s who! By Monday, mass shutdowns occurred and we were ready to serve the public. We would go on to receive many grocery orders daily for everything from sanitizer to cilantro, to rice and beans. But we were not set up or trained for this. It was incredibly stressful and difficult to figure out how to do it well.
The next year and a half would consist of things ranging from watching other businesses get shut down, to late night city council zoom meetings, to dealing with half the public thinking you are not doing enough to keep people safe, to the other half committing not to eat at establishments who followed protocols. One day you would be taking tables out of your lobby and the next week putting them back in.
During all of covid we never shut down. I kept all my employees working in some capacity or another during that time. I was really proud of that, but it ended up being not as smart as I thought to some degree. To keep things going, we had invested in things like shelving, freezers, and storage etc. Our revenue would show an overall increase, but we had spent a tremendous amount making that happen. Because our revenue showed an increase, we were not qualified for most of the government’s PPP funds. At one point I realized, that shutting down and taking time off would have actually been the smartest choice financially and for my sanity.
By 2021, things had stabilized a bit more with restrictions, but the fallout and consequences from covid continued. Our community was inundated with tourism the summer of 2021, while there was little to no one looking for jobs. As a frame of reference, our revenue in summer 2021 was twice that it was in 2019. We weren’t prepared for that and didn’t have enough staff to adequately manage. The consequence of this was that our staff was completely overworked early into the summer, the staff we hired were not great quality, and I worked every.single.day. The public who had been so supportive early on in the pandemic, were angry, restless and no longer empathetic. They expected the same quality and service as prior to the pandemic and began badgering the young kids and few adults we had on staff. But still we stayed open. Don’t quit. Whatever you do, don’t quit. For the first time in the history of our store, employees would just not show up to work. I didn’t blame them. The work was brutal and the people were so hostile at times.
I tried hard to make work conditions better AND to take care of myself. I became so chronically fatigued that I could no longer make effective decisions. I no longer had boundaries with my time. I had circles under my eyes that couldn’t be covered, I gained weight, and my hair was falling out. Matt and I would celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and try to go on a trip. Out of the 5 days we were gone, I slept most of the first three, and there was complete anarchy at the store. The bright, beautiful place I had created to give people hope and energy had turned into the restaurant version of Fight Club.
It was a failure; I was a failure and I was just done. I had hit burnout and physically could not do it anymore more. The final straw came when there were three of us working (because two people didn’t show up to work), and we hadn’t had a drink or potty break in three hours. A guy who I had told at the register that it would be a 25-minute wait started yelling at us exactly 25 minutes in (it’s timed on our screens, so we knew). I lost it. I lost it with him and with all the people glaring at us for not being fast enough. I’ve never done that before. It’s terrible service and a terrible way to run a business. (Cue bad yelp review) I was devastated that this was me and this was the business I was running.
As soon as I could, I called Matt and he and our son Cole came from the farm to help. In work boots with callous hands, they came. That would be the last day my business or life would be run that way.