A Movement for Movement

By Megan Kaplon – November 1, 2019
Brian Fitzsimmons

At 10 a.m. on a Friday in September, Comedor — a modern, upscale Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin — buzzes with activity.

Deliveries flow in the side entrance — dollies stacked high with boxes of fresh produce, clean aprons and linens and supplies for the bar — and the kitchen staff is already elbow-deep in prep work for the night’s dinner service. But you’ll also see a cluster of bright-eyed people decked out in running shoes and shorts, stashing their water bottles and keys on the butcher block tables and tossing bags onto the leather booths before beginning to stretch and catch up wherever they can find space.

This is the Comedor Run Club, a group created by Comedor owner and pastry chef Philip Speer with the goal of making the service industry a healthier place to work.

The run club meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 a.m., gathering at Comedor and running a 5K loop (3.1 miles for the uninitiated). On Thursdays, also at 10 a.m., they push the two long family-style tables by the bar off to the side, and local instructor Brit Jaeger teaches a donation-based yoga class.

These days, the runs sometimes draw more than 20 people, but it began humbly enough. Speer, along with Comedor executive chef Gabe Erales and chef cuisine Alan Delgado, started running together as they prepared to open the restaurant in the spring.

“Me, Alan and Gabe were just trying to get runs in every morning just for our fucking sanity,” Speer says. “At first, we were joking like, ‘Comedor Run Club, haha.’”

But as the chefs posted their runs to social media and talked about them at work, others asked to join. In July, with around 10 runners consistently showing up, Speer started a Comedor Run Club Instagram account, which continued to spread the word and generate interest from servers, chefs, owners and bartenders from restaurants all around Austin.

The group has also added members through Ben’s Friends, a food and beverage industry support group for those struggling with substance abuse and addiction. The Austin chapter of Ben’s Friends meets Mondays at Comedor, chaired by Speer and his business partner William Ball.

Ben’s Friends and the Comedor Run Club complement each other well. Speer’s vision for the run club is to offer an alternative to the heavy drinking, late-night partying culture that often dominates the industry. What if, he wondered, instead of staying out late and drinking, we went home, slept well and woke up early to gather and spend time with friends and coworkers before our shifts? Tell those same stories, share those same laughs, but do it while simultaneously getting some exercise and drinking more water.

Shift the post-shift, as he puts it.

“We are in the middle of a culture shift in the industry anyway, and I think doing things like this are pushing that forward and bringing more attention to it,” Speer says.

Five years ago, Speer lived a much different lifestyle. He weighed 265 pounds, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, drank Diet Coke and ate fast food. He also accumulated four DWIs, the last of which resulted in a 10-day jail sentence and seven years probation.

That fourth DWI also inspired him to change his life, starting with a stint in rehab, and it was there at rehab in Hunt, Texas, that he discovered running. At first, getting out on the fitness trail was just something to do to stave off boredom.

“Then I really enjoyed it,” he says. “It became pretty zen for me. It became something that I could zero out on and just kind of melt away the external stuff and then think about myself and what’s going on with me. And once I got out of rehab, I just continued to do it.”

The 42-year-old chef is now five years sober and has run multiple marathons, including Austin, New York and Chicago and a number of halves around Texas. His weekly fitness routine consists of the three Comedor Run Club runs, yoga on Thursday and training sessions at Of The Lion Fitness on North Lamar.

His transformation provides a powerful example for the other members searching for a similar shift in their own lives. He’s also uniquely capable of providing empathy, advice and encouragement. It’s what makes him such a powerful leader for this movement, inside the four walls of Comedor and in the restaurant industry at large. Ashlea Latham, a bartender at The Roosevelt Room, joined Ben’s Friends when she decided to get sober a couple months ago, and at one of her first meetings, run club members encouraged her to come out and give it a try. She initially shook them off, offering up the excuses that she wasn’t a runner, she had just started exercising again, she would be too slow, but they kept inviting her, and finally she agreed.

“My first day was extremely intimidating,” Latham says, noting that many of the core members are serious runners. “But everyone who was there, they were just excited that people were showing up who are not runners. They encourage all levels to participate, so for me, it was a nice way to try something new and step outside my comfort zone. I got to meet a lot of really cool people, and now I’m slowly getting to form relationships with those people.”

On this particular Friday, Latham was the last runner to round the corner of 6th Street and make the final approach down Colorado to Comedor. Eighteen other runners waited for her in front of the restaurant, hands out for high fives and arms open for hugs.

“This is what makes it all worth it for me,” Latham says when the cheering cluster of smiling, sweaty chefs, servers and bartenders came into view.

That connection, that camaraderie, seems to be the magic ingredient. Whether because they’ve gotten sober and find it difficult to hang out with their hard-partying former crowd, or because they simply prefer to wake up early and go for a run, or just because they work the opposite shift of their friends with traditional nine-to-fives, many in the restaurant industry are hungry for community.

People like Fixe owner and chef James Robert, who has been sober for 23 years — three years longer than he’s been a professional chef.

“I’m a social guy, but I’m not out and about after work,” Robert says. “After a long day of work, I’m home and I don’t really want to go to a bar or a club or anything like that. So this opportunity with the Comedor Run Club has allowed me to make connections and friendships and relationships that I just simply would not have made and could not have made, because I’m just not out there in that way.”

Megan McQuaid, who works at She’s Not Here, a Pacific-Asian and sushi restaurant on 2nd Street, echoed Robert’s feelings. A dedicated runner who also juggles a day job and grad school in addition to her gig at She’s Not Here, not to mention chasing after her 3-year-old son, late-night partying didn’t really fit into her schedule.

“My restaurant is a lot of people who like to party and stay out until 5 or 6 a.m. and that’s just not my lifestyle, and it’s something that had made it difficult to make strong friendships with my own coworkers,” McQuaid says. “It has been an incredible gift for me to find a lot of other people who are like-minded.”

Speer makes it clear that he doesn’t blame the industry for his struggles with addiction. He admits that there are certain challenges inherent in this work and there’s certainly a prevailing culture of hard-working, heavy-drinking chefs to contend with — a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that food service and hospitality workers have the highest rate of substance abuse of any profession. Speer thinks it’s an industry capable of change, however, and one that is worth changing.

“I’m not doing this for a little while or looking for my next gig. I’m trying to do this and make this my life and career,” Speer says. “I just have a passion for the restaurant industry. I have a passion for food, I have a passion for being a chef, I have a passion for creating. I love the nurturing aspect of it, I love the coaching and leading of my people, I love learning, I love sharing, I love all of it. It’s a literal incubator every day of passions and creativity and really cool things.”

For some working in restaurants, the answer to living a healthier life might have been to leave the industry altogether, but for those fostering the same kind of passion Speer has, Comedor Run Club and Ben’s Friends are part of the movement offering an alternative.

“Because I’ve met business owners like Philip Speer, William Ball, James [Robert] from Fixe, it’s like now I know that it’s still a possibility for me to work my passion in this industry while being sober,” Latham says. “And I can help shift my community and make a positive change versus just dip out and not make a difference.”

As a business owner, Speer also sees these offerings as a way to invest in his employees.

“We ask so much of our people in a restaurant. If we can put that same focus and energy that we want from our people back into some mindfulness, some mental wellbeing, some physical well-being, then we’re creating some place where people have another reason to come,” Speer says. “We want to nurture our guests that walk in the door, but we also want to nurture each other. That dialog and that genuineness with the people who walk in the door — if we have it with each other first, it’s just going to be a better experience all around for everyone.”

And the world has begun to catch on.

“I think self-care as a whole right now — I don’t want to call it a trend — but it’s so on the forefront of everybody’s perception and everybody’s mindset,” Robert says. “It’s a big conversation on all levels. So, the fact that it has been able to reach our industry, which I dare to say possibly needed it the most — we’re incredibly fortunate and blessed to have this opportunity.”

The hashtag #soberchefs has almost 2,000 posts on Instagram. Publically sober big names in the restaurant industry include Andrew Zimmern, Sean Brock, Gregory Gourdet and Gabriel Rucker. Some restaurants have made the decision to end the tradition of “shift beers,” free drinks for staff at the end of the night. And they are starting to run.

During the pre-run powwow on that Friday morning in September, Speer shared some good news. In the last six weeks, chefs and restaurants from five different cities had reached out to share the story of their run clubs or say they were starting one, inspired by the Comedor runners. That group includes Rucker, the chef and owner of Le Pigeon, Little Bird Bistro and Canard in Portland, Oregon.

In his journey to sobriety, Speer always looked up to Rucker, who has now been sober for six years, but this time, the inspiration flowed the opposite way. Rucker launched the Bird Dog Run Club on September 19.

No one is under the impression that changing an entire industry, one very set in its ways and culture, will be easy. But the Comedor Run Club founders and members are encouraged by the progress so far, and motivated by the impact these shifts of lifestyle have made on their own lives.

“I think it’s a relatively small percentage of the industry that has an interest in doing it a different way,” says Trisha Sutton, a Comedor Run Club member and co-chair, “but I really think that as more people show up to change that behavior and that sense of community, and the more that they talk about it and we talk about it, the more exposure there will be, and I think that it will be a huge draw over time.”

“It’s little baby steps that will eventually help,” Delgado adds. “I think maybe the old school cooks might think it’s stupid, but the new generations will see it and they’ll say, ‘This is what the culture is. You go work, you work long hours, but then you take care of yourself instead of destroying yourself.’ The more this happens in other places, the better this industry is going to be.”


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