By Tom Nightingale
Foodservice has been going through something of a technological revolution in recent years, an apparent long-term shift that took another leap forward during the pandemic. Increased digitization and automation bring benefits, such as increased convenience and accessibility, but what it cannot and should not attempt to replace is human connection.
Perhaps now, more than ever, people need other people. The pandemic made that abundantly clear. Human connection is vital in people’s personal and professional lives, and that’s no different for foodservice.
That’s a message that Pete Bombaci, the founder and executive director of the GenWell Project, spends his life looking to spread far and wide.
“We still don’t recognize enough how important social connection is for our health and wellbeing,” Bombaci tells RestoBiz. “We talk about physical activity, eating well, sleep, drinking water. But research shows that sleep is the only thing more important than social connection for reducing and combating burnout. Despite that, because we haven’t been educated on it, it’s an afterthought – if it’s even a thought at all.”
Bombaci, who spent 25 years working in the hospitality industry and in the sale and marketing of alcohol, was an opening keynote speaker at the Culinary Federation’s National Conference in Saskatoon in June, which ran with the tagline “Reset and Reconnect”.
At the conference, aptly the CF’s first in-person conference since the onset of the pandemic, he gave a presentation titled “The Power of Human Connection – In Crisis and Beyond” in which he spoke about the importance of human connection and face-to-face contact, whether in a restaurant kitchen, a dining room, behind a bar, or outside of the work environment.
“We need to be looking for solutions to make people happier and healthier,” Bombaci continues. “We’ve never been educated on the power of human connection: that’s exactly what our keynote was at the Conference and it’s exactly what GenWell’s message has been since 2016.
Bombaci explains GenWell was inspired by the northeast blackout of 2003, which left an estimated 10 million people in Ontario without power for several hours. During that time, he says, “we saw the power of human connection in a crisis.” GenWell aimed to create situations to allow for this connectivity in day-to-day life.
Getting back in touch post-pandemic
Though the depths of the pandemic appear thankfully to be behind us, Canadians had to endure two years of reduce social contact, and that has taken its toll. Anxiety and depression are considered by many to have been at an all-time high during the height of COVID-19. Bombaci notes that GenWell research shows that 10 million Canadians say they are lonelier than they’ve ever been before, across all demographics.
“When you start to hear these numbers, you start to realize that this isn’t an issue particular to a certain age of occupation,” continues Bombaci. He describes combating loneliness as, similar to hunger and thirst, a basic need that needs to be fulfilled and can lead to serious health risks if neglected.
Restaurants, bars, and cafes have long been a social hub for people; places to connect, to talk sports or movies or life. Whether it’s workers in the industry staying for a drink after their shift or members of the public meeting family, friends, or colleagues for a bite to eat, these kinds of establishments have been central to human connection for as long as they have existed. Case in point: at the start of his presentation in Saskatoon, Bombaci showed clips from Seinfeld, Cheers, and Friends. “Many of the most popular shows in history, the ones we quote and smile at, have cafes, restaurants, or bars as a social focal point,” he notes.
But, during the pandemic, that option was closed off to so many people. “It was wiped out of our lives,” says Bombaci. “Not just deep meaningful connections, but running into friends, acquaintances, or even random interactions.” That was the same for foodservice workers. Kitchen and font-of-house staff are a team of people with a big sense of belonging and camaraderie; with many restaurants forced to operate either limited hours or close dine-in service entirely, that disappeared overnight.
“The importance of focusing on mental health and the effects the pandemic has had on all of us cannot be overstated,” said Jud Simpson, a conference attendee and the Executive Chef at the House of Commons in Ottawa. “It will be incredibly difficult if not impossible to put the genie back in the bottle, but we must find another way of using technology and social media – so much more is accomplished face-to-face.”
Ultimately, Bombaci’s keynote presentation was extremely well-received by the gathering chefs and foodservice professionals at the CF’s National Conference in Saskatoon. In particular, it was praised for giving a voice to an issue that, as Bombaci has said, tends often to be overlooked.
“I had student chefs, renowned chefs in high places, people battling addiction, people who struggled with their business over the course of the pandemic coming up to me and voicing their gratitude and approval for spotlighting this issue,” he says. “I almost get emotional thinking about the number of conversations I had with people.”
Adelina Sisti-DeBlasis RSE, a chef and culinary teacher who is the president of the CF Windsor Chapter and the CF Central Region Vice President, said that Bombaci’s session offered a valuable perspective that sometimes, chefs and people just need a little motivation to be the best versions of themselves. “He gave us a gentle reminder to think about what excites us and how to use our knowledge wisely throughout our career path, obtain valuable insights from our peers, and establish relationships that will forever be ours.”
Chefs & restaurateurs can lead the way
In that quest to regain and maximize human connection and ensure that chefs, foodservice workers, and the public are looking after their mental and emotional health and being the best version of themselves, what can restaurants and leaders in the industry do to help?
On the other side of the pandemic, Bombaci emphasizes, there is a huge opportunity for bars and restaurants to ramp up the ways in which they offer the human connection that people so desperately crave.
Not only that, when it comes to chefs and restaurateurs looking after their staff, their colleagues, and themselves, a little can go a long, long way.
“Recognize that you can make a difference in the life of another human by engaging them in a conversation every day,” Bombaci concludes. “For customers, you can not only provide a great dining experience, but you could change a life by engaging somebody. For your staff, work at it and prioritize it – put it into your calendar to connect with your team. Breed that atmosphere. High fives, affectionate nicknames. Create that environment where social connection becomes the standard. Normalize it, and you will notice the change.”