After two years of stress, Montreal restaurateurs and staff quietly face heavy psychological toll

For the last 20 years, restaurant owner and chef Pablo Rojas has carved out an impressive career.

A certain saying summed it up, he said: “Do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life."

Or at least “it was like that until the pandemic hit,” he said.

Quebec will be reopening restaurants at half capacity -- again -- on Monday. But the long-term psychological toll of uncertainty and stress over the last two years has already done damage to many in the industry that will be hard to undo anytime soon.

Rojas says the pandemic has forced him to close two of his four restaurants. Still open are Le Petit Italien and Provisions butcher shop in Outremont.

Despite a successful career, even he is wondering if it’s all worth it.

“Even me, I’m starting to think what’s going to be my future for the next two, three, four years,” Rojas said.

In a recent Instagram post, Rojas tried to convey just how difficult the pandemic has been and the mental health toll it has on restaurant workers.

“I’ve seen firsthand the effect all of this is having on the mental health of my team,” Rojas wrote. “People who have been with me for years talking about suicide because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

For much of the pandemic, Nicole Turcotte’s dining room at Dinette Triple Crown has been closed. She’s decided take-out is the safest option to prevent any spread of COVID-19.

“For the most part, I would say that people are in survival mode,” Turcotte said.

She says staff are afraid after two years of financial instability.

“It feels like we’re on a little boat floating in the ocean and it’s been battered, but it’s still floating,” Turcotte said. “It does feel like one or two more waves cross the bow and we’re all going to bail out.”

Psychologist Dr. Syd Miller says several of his clients work in the restaurant industry. Many are more anxious than they were when the pandemic first started.

“What they’re telling me is they don’t know how much longer they can hold on," Miller said. "Hold on financially, hold on emotionally."

He says it’s not easy for someone to change careers. For many, restaurants are part of their identity and in some cases have been passed down through families.

“I’m already hearing it from some of my clients, they’re starting to think what’s the next step in terms of career or in terms of how I do this business,” Miller said.

A 50-per-cent capacity limit won’t be profitable for Rojas, but he’s just happy for his staff, who will get back to work and find their old routine.

“People that are ready to give up, people that are isolated going into work -- you don’t realize how much it’s important for you,” Rojas said.

“When you have nothing to do anymore, when you don’t need to go out, I mean, it is hard.”

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