Pair Turns Sacramento Restaurant Community’s Grief into a Pathway for Grace

Patrick and Bobbin Mulvaney at Mulvaney’s B&L in Sacramento. Photo by Rachel Valley

I’ve Got Your Back 

I was five years old when I had my first memorable episode of depression. I locked myself in the bathroom, sat in the dark, and sobbed. I never told anyone about the depth of my sadness, not even my parents. Like one in every five Americans who live with mental illness, I navigated decades of my life undiagnosed and untreated. 

As a result, I spent more than 20 years battling bouts of suicidal ideation and struggling with drug and alcohol abuse — all while somehow managing to build an arguably notable career in Sacramento restaurants and agriculture. 

In my case, my undiagnosed mental illness was exacerbated by the pressures, stress, and excesses of the restaurant industry. For others, those stressors are the catalysts for the onset of their mental health struggles. Of the 15 million workers in American restaurants, 17 percent have been diagnosed with substance abuse disorders — far more than any other profession.


In 2018 and 2019, the Sacramento restaurant community was hit especially hard by this reality, experiencing a cluster of overdoses and suicides, including the death of beloved local chef Noah Zonca, at the age of 41. 

Four years after Zonca’s passing, chef Patrick Mulvaney still gets emotional when he talks about the loss of his longtime friend and colleague.

“People leave, and it hurts,” Patrick shares, with tears in his eyes. “But what they leave behind is a gift … their loss has impact, and that impact can create action.”  

Patrick and his wife, Bobbin Mulvaney, his partner in Sacramento restaurant Mulvaney’s Building & Loan (B&L), took action by hosting a series of mental health trainings for restaurant workers to recognize the warning signs of suicide and self-harm, in partnership with mental health experts from Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente. That effort quickly evolved into I Got Your Back (IGYB), an initiative aimed at educating managers and employees about how to create a culture of acceptance and communication about mental health in their restaurants, as well as providing emergency resources for those who may be in immediate crisis. 

“We take care of others,” Bobbin says. “’May I bring you more water? How is your meal? Let me take care of your every need’ … It’s part of who we are. I Got Your Back is about taking our superpower, which is hospitality, and turning it onto ourselves.”

To help the B&L team open up to the IGYB process, the Mulvaneys knew they would have to lead by example by embracing their own vulnerabilities. Both have shared their own personal mental health journeys, not only with their staff, but also with their industry peers, and at times even with patrons. 

Rosa Warren, a Mulvaney's employee, warmly greets a guest.
Rosa Warren, a Mulvaney’s employee, warmly greets a guest. Photo by Rachel Valley

“We have to meet people where they are,” Bobbin shares. “Not everyone is ready to talk about mental health the same way.” 

“If we’re going to change the way people talk about mental health, [that openness] is essential,” Patrick adds. “As owners, as a chef, you have to be willing to be vulnerable, too.” 


While the fundamentals of IGYB have been developed in partnership with experts in addiction, communication, and mental health, the Mulvaneys have also been deliberate in making sure the program is accessible to everyone in the restaurant industry. 

An excellent example of this is the Mental Health Check-in Box, a central tool in the IGYB curriculum, which has been added as part of the daily routine at Mulvaney’s B&L. Upon arrival for a shift, each employee drops an anonymous card into a box as they clock in.  

The IGYB mental health check-in box at Mulvaney's.
The IGYB mental health check-in box at Mulvaney’s. Photo by Rachel Valley

Each card is divided into differently colored quadrants, as well as a space to select an emoji that best indicates the employee’s state of mind at the time, ranging from happy to angry or depressed (blue, of course). This provides employees with the opportunity to share their emotional states honestly, without feeling singled out. This also makes the shift manager aware that members of the team may need extra support, humor, or care throughout the shift. 

Efrain Flores works in the restaurant's dish pit.
Efrain Flores works in the restaurant’s dish pit. Photo by Rachel Valley

“I’m dyslexic,” Bobbin says. “We have staff (members) who speak multiple languages, and employees who may not be able to read. The card needed to have symbols on it, not words, so it could be accessible to everybody.”

While it may seem simple, the cards have an elegant logic to them.

“The process encourages staff to make a commitment to self-awareness, while also keeping them engaged in the collective mental health of the team,” she explains. “It opens them up to having these important conversations organically.”

Bobbin is in the process of wrapping up the first draft of Recipe Book on Mental Health, an online resource and training curriculum for restaurant owners and managers to use in creating their own IGYB culture in their restaurants. In addition to helping bring conversations about mental health into the workplace, the book includes lessons on creating a culture of respect, mindfulness, and positive conflict resolution. Once the book is completed, the Mulvaneys plan to collaborate with other industry mental health organizations, such as The Giving Kitchen in Atlanta and Not Nine to Five in Toronto, Ontario, to continue to raise awareness and share their program with more restaurants.  

“We can’t shy away from the hard conversations,” Bobbin says. “I Got Your Back is about helping people move through that fear, and then teaching others how to move through it, too.”

What do the Mulvaneys most want to share with anyone reading this article who may be struggling?  

“Keep hope. Don’t be afraid to lean in,” Bobbin says. “Most importantly, give grace to yourself so you can also give it to others.” 

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If you’re struggling with your mental health, call 800-273-8255 or text HOPE to 916-668-4266. If you are in crisis or are having suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline now offers this quick-dial option to reach assistance: 9-8-8.