Health

Using Group Workouts to Build a Healthier Hospitality Team

How bars, brands, and restaurants are redefining “Work hard, play hard”

Photo courtesy of Reformation Brewery.

In the booze business, socialization with coworkers often centers on imbibing. But some pioneering companies are redefining happy hour and bringing employees together for group fitness activities instead. Whether it’s through yoga, hiking, running, kayaking, or kickball, businesses like St-Germain, McGuire Moorman Hospitality, Seedlip, and others are promoting health, well-being, and team building through non-alcohol-focused events.

Fitness has always been a priority for Channing Centeno, a brand specialist with St-Germain, bartender at Seamstress in New York City, and former high school athlete. But, he points out, that’s not the case with many of his industry peers. “People work crazy long hours,” he says. “They’re not eating or sleeping well, and they’re drinking too much. It’s easy to turn into a really unhealthy person in this business.”

In 2017, Centeno began channeling his own passion for fitness into helping others in the industry get more physically fit by organizing two to three monthly “bartender balance” events for colleagues, including boot camp–style workouts, shadowboxing, and yoga.

Both of his employers are passionate about wellness. St-Germain’s global brand ambassador, Camille Ralph, is a certified yoga instructor; Centeno’s boss at Seamstress, Pam Wiznitzer, the bar’s creative director, is also an avid yogi. Centeno and his fellow brand ambassadors often work out together when Ralph is in town for meetings, and he and some of his fellow Seamstress bartenders attend yoga, boxing, and other classes together once or twice a month. “I’ve taken a lot of my coworkers to their first yoga class, and now many of them are regulars,” he says. “It’s really good to have staff activities that don’t involve going to a bar and drinking. Fitness classes are a great way for people to connect outside of the bar in a different way.”

A pioneer in staff wellness initiatives, McGuire Moorman Hospitality (MMH) founder and CEO Larry McGuire started organizing boot camps for his employees in Austin, Texas, in 2009.  “The restaurant business is notorious for being an unhealthy and stressful industry,” says McGuire, “and we’ve always wanted to counter that with our managerial practices and culture. Workouts are a great way to get the team together doing something healthy, fun—and outside the restaurants or office. We expect our teams to work extremely hard, but we always want them to take care of themselves and feel that we care about their quality of life and well-being.”

Now, nearly a decade after those first boot camps, MMH offers all staff members discounts at a local gym, as well as access to weekly onsite classes like yoga, barre, and Pilates. For employee Maggie Bankston, these low-cost workouts have given her more energy for her long days, helped create “a community of like-minded, fitness-oriented groups outside of work,” and led to a “more positive work environment.”

Seedlip, the London-based producer of nonalcoholic distilled spirits, also prioritizes employee wellness. While general manager Emma Wykes acknowledges that the brand tends to attract “pretty active people as a whole,” the company augments those natural inclinations with monthly outings focused on activities like golf, Ping-Pong, and yoga. Not only do these activities promote health but, she adds, they “strengthen team bonds on every level.” Approximately 60 to 70 percent of the more than 50 employees in the London corporate office participate in these outings, which the company has dubbed Seedlip Socials. In addition, Seedlip often hosts “walking meetings” and encourages staffers to get outdoors as much as possible. “Nature breaks,” says Wykes, “are great for productivity and refocusing the mind.”

For the sustainably minded cachaça brand Novo Fogo, located in Seattle, employee health hits close to home. Owner and founder Dragos Axinte’s wife, Emily LaCroix Axinte, who also works for the company, was diagnosed with two types of breast cancer a few years ago when she was only in her early 30s. Seeing the impact of cancer on someone so young and healthy inspired Dragos to spend the bulk of the brand’s marketing budget on wellness initiatives to encourage his employees to take care of themselves.

“We are trying to build a company that can live 100 years, and thus [we] depend on steady, long-term relationships in the industry to achieve that goal,” Dragos says. “I can’t think of a better use of marketing resources than toward the wellness and personal sustainability of our partners in the industry.”

Since 2014 the company has sponsored health and wellness events like running tours and yoga classes, and it has created a dedicated wellness room at Tales of the Cocktail complete with tips for stretching, TRX (total body resistance exercise) demonstrations, and “blender bikes” for making smoothies at the festival (yes, bikes that manually power blenders).

The tight-knit staff of six corporate employees often replaces sit-down staff meetings with group hikes and walks in Seattle’s neighborhoods and parks, and the brand’s marketing director, Luke McKinley, runs regularly with a local industry group led by Chris Elford, the owner of Navy Strength and No Anchor. Whether he’s running or hiking at home with like-minded industry friends and fellow staffers or taking the lead in industry-wide wellness initiatives, McKinley says that staying active helps him “recharge” and “disconnect a bit from technology and clear his head.” He’s also able to interact with colleagues and clients and “build deeper, lasting relationships” with them in new, healthy ways.

At Reformation Brewery in Woodstock, Georgia, staff fitness activities have helped build “team cohesiveness” for a staff that’s otherwise fragmented from working multiple different shifts and schedules, says the brewery’s promotions manager, Jonathan Rizzi. “Our production team is here at 5 or 6 am and often leaves by 3 pm,” he says, “while salespeople like me don’t even get to the brewery until 6 pm.” The company sponsors regular wellness outings that have included mountain biking, kayaking, yoga, and even recreational kickball and curling teams, and Rizzi says that the majority of the 50-person staff (half full-time, half part-time) participates in events.

“We had 25 people sign up for our kickball team last year, which is half of our staff. Our team cohesion is better when we spend time together outside of work,” says Rizzi. “It gives us the opportunity to meet and interact with staff members we wouldn’t see otherwise.”

In addition to becoming more physically fit, Rizzi has actually lost about 40 pounds since joining the staff two years ago—and he feels less stressed. “This industry is so physically and mentally demanding,” he says, “and I’m constantly driving, traveling, and working late nights in my market. But since we’re always working out—even if that’s just a pickup game of soccer—I’ve seen a direct impact not only on my weight but on my stress level. That’s not just important for my overall health—it makes me better at my job because I’m more physically and mentally sharp and have more stamina for the long days and hours.”

Photo courtesy of the NoMad.

Nathan McCarley-O’Neill, the bar manager at the NoMad Hotel in New York City, feels similarly about his company’s staff fitness program. An avid marathoner, McCarley-O’Neill is one of more than a dozen staffers who participate in weekly group runs led by NoMad’s chef and co-owner, Daniel Humm. The program accommodates different paces and distances for all levels. The group uses social media platforms like Strava and Facebook to coordinate the training runs and share advice on everything from running routes to gear and nutrition. McCarley-O’Neill, who ran the New York City Marathon with Humm and several other coworkers last fall, says the regular runs help “break down barriers” and build better communication among staff. “While we have a really good working relationship, especially between the bar and the kitchen,” he says, “we can talk about things in a social setting and out on long runs that we might not necessarily feel comfortable talking about at work—just because we’re more relaxed and not under as much pressure.”

Enrique Sanchez, the bar director at San Francisco’s Arguello, is training for the Chefs Cycle for No Kid Hungry fundraising bike race with some of his colleagues, including the restaurant’s chef, Traci Des Jardins. “You build a new layer of respect and admiration for coworkers when you’re pushing each other to your physical limit,” says Sanchez. The 40-year-old says he tries to set an example for his younger colleagues, often inviting them to join him for runs, walks, hikes, and yoga classes. “We’re around alcohol all the time,” he says. “It’s good to take a break from it and motivate each other to lead a healthier life, to get outdoors and get moving.” Sanchez adds that some people just need a little push: “Maybe if they see this old guy doing challenging things and pushing himself to the limit, they’ll think, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this, too.’”

“Plus,” he jokes, “you burn all those calories working out, so you can pretty much eat all the food we’re surrounded by at work without any guilt.”

Laura Scholz is a freelance spirits, travel, and wellness writer based in Atlanta whose work has appeared in Atlanta Magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Eater Atlanta, Good Housekeeping, Liquor.com, Tales of the Cocktail.com, and Where Atlanta/Where Traveler.com. She balances out her passion for food and drink by teaching Pilates and running marathons.

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