WOODSTOCK — A few weeks ago at the Woodstock Cafe, Chef Jose Arevalos was the lone cook during the brunch rush, and his partner and cafe co-owner Nikki Grant could see the toll that shift took on him.
Burnout in the restaurant industry is a real thing, Arevalos and Grant said, and it’s something they and their employees have felt the last 18 months. Many restaurants had to lay off staff members because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, many are finding it hard to hire employees to fill open positions.
In an effort to avoid total burnout, Arevalos and Grant have decided to change the hours of the restaurant, which is located at 117 S. Main St. in Woodstock. The cafe will be closed for dinner service the week of June 7 as well as the month of August. The restaurant will remain open for breakfast, lunch, coffee, wine and beer.
“We started to feel tired — really tired. When that happens, you start to lose your inspiration, you start to lose your drive. That was very scary to both of us, because we love where we are. We love what we’re doing. We love feeding people. We get so much joy out of giving people food to eat and wine to drink for dinner. It’s pure happiness for us,” Grant said recently. “So the second that started to fade a little bit, we wanted to step back and evaluate what we were doing and how long we were going to do it. It seemed like if we continued on this pace that we wouldn’t be able to sustain the business. So, we needed some time off, and the only way we can really take time off is to not do dinner service in August.”
Both Arevalos and Grant have made a career in the food industry, having met while working for a large private restaurant company in Chicago before eventually finding their way to Shenandoah County, where Grant grew up.
They both admitted to working long hours for little pay while learning the business, which, for better or worse, has made them vulnerable to burnout. It wasn’t uncommon for them to work 10- to 12-hour shifts six days a week in Chicago, they said.
“You just did it. If you wanted to get ahead, you worked longer, you worked harder and you sacrificed more of yourself, more of your life, more of your free time,” Grant said. “That’s what’s created burnout in this industry: that mentality.”
“We’re both here because we’re passionate about what we do,” Arevalos added. “We wouldn’t do anything else. In this industry, though, there’s a stigma that you always have to be there and you always have to work. You can’t take time off, you can’t get sick. It’s very toxic, but it’s that mentality that you’re down and you have to come back and overcome.”
But working through that does have potential positives, Arevalos said.
“You always learn how to do things, because things never always go right on a scale that big,” he said. “You have to learn how to adapt, or you won’t make it. Then you bring us out here, it’s helped.”
Even so, it takes a toll, mentally and physically.
“We want to love what we do for the rest of our lives, but how do we take care of ourselves?” Grant said. “It’s not because we’re weak or because we’re afraid of hard work. We’ve proved that over our careers. We just need to take some time for ourselves.”
When one partner is working 60 or 70 hours a week, a relationship could very easily become a distraction or something possibly deemed unnecessary. When both partners are working those long hours — even if it’s in the same building — it makes some aspects of a relationship nearly impossible.
Arevalos and Grant, for instance, love to travel. In fact, it’s quite essential to their work.
Visiting different parts of the United States and abroad is pivotal for the couple in terms of trying new food and checking out unique restaurants and what they have to offer.
But working such long hours has made travel difficult. Throw in a global pandemic, and it’s been almost non-existent. The couple had a trip to Italy planned last Christmas, but had to cancel it due to the pandemic.
The two did manage to sneak away about a month ago and stay out of town for two nights. They were able to visit six different restaurants in two days. Trips like those help break up the monotony and offer inspiration for what folks get to experience at the Woodstock Cafe.
“We like to go to new places. How do you grow your inspiration if you don’t go see and try new things? That’s a big part of what we do,” Arevalos said. “Being trapped here for a year and a half was kind of stifling. If we’re not getting out and going to the best places, how do we get better?”
Grant agreed: “I feel like when we come back from those places, we’re always a little more inspired. Plus, it’s nice to be waited on and being able to appreciate someone else.”
Other aspects of life, such as having a child, are something the couple has decided to put on the back burner because of work.
“Something would be jeopardized; it would either be the business or the child’s life,” Grant said. “For me, this place was my dream. So I didn’t want to sacrifice that. I can’t speak to what it feels like, but I can imagine that I wouldn’t want to miss anything in my kid’s life, either. So with both of us being here 60 or 70 hours a week, it almost seemed impossible.”
Arevalos and Grant said they will never deny loving the work that they do, even if they’re looking for a simple break here and there to refresh, recharge and rejuvenate themselves and their staff.
Hard work is something both have known from an early age. Grant comes from a long line of business owners in the Northern Shenandoah Valley while Arevalos comes from a hardworking family in California, where he learned valuable skills from his mother, stepfather and grandmother.
Eventually — hopefully soon, they said — Arevalos and Grant plan to take that trip to Italy, or at least somewhere in Europe. Their hope is that their batteries get rest — maybe even with a hard reset .
“It’s never been an option to close down. We never even thought about it,” Arevalos said. “You just keep going. Where we come from, it’s always, ‘Get it done, no matter what.’”