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Ashley Christensen Restaurants Took a Break. But Would They Do It Again?

Breaking the flow

Ashley Christensen is back to work after she and her entire team took a week-long break in August
Ashley Christensen is back to work after she and her entire team took a week-long break in August (AC Restaurants)

By Eric Ginsburg

When Ashley Christensen and Kaitlyn Goalen of AC Restaurants reopened for business in April, they knew the next several months at their downtown Raleigh restaurants would be an uphill slog. Like many other restauranteurs, the couple had spent the better part of 2020 reflecting on how their industry should change going forward, and Goalen had an idea.

“Kait came to me and said, ‘I think we should close at the beginning of August for a week at all the restaurants’,” Christensen recalls. “And I was like ‘Wait, what—what are you talking about?’ And she was like, ‘Now let me explain this—everyone’s gonna get in here, we’re going to work really hard to get things back open again, and then we’re going to get ready for the really busy season, which is the fall and moving into the holidays. What if we just paused, gave everyone the week, and caught our breath again?’”

Christensen used to do exactly that back when her domain was confined to Poole’s Diner, now the flagship of a growing restaurant empire.

“I really think that was the last time I truly let go,” Christensen says. “I hadn’t thought about it or acknowledged it until [Goalen] brought up this conversation.”

So at the beginning of August, all of AC Restaurants closed to give everyone—from the servers and dishwashers to the beverage director and accountant—a full week off.

Goalen, the executive director of AC Restaurants, and her wife Christensen headed for the beach, spending several days at a friend’s home in Emerald Isle. The low-key getaway was punctuated by a dice game called Farkle and a board game called Sequence. They brought down a deep fryer so Christensen could serve a fish fry, and BLTs and breakfast sandwiches featured prominently, as did glasses of wine and walks on the beach.

“I think what was really profound for us and other people in the company,” Goalen says, “especially upper management—was kind of the quiet, the stillness of not still having other things go on in the background.”

Kaitlyn Goalen had the idea to close all of AC Restaurants for a week in August
Kaitlyn Goalen had the idea to close all of AC Restaurants for a week in August (AC Restaurants)

Because restaurants don’t fall into traditional 9 to 5 hours, “you get used to knowing in the back of your head that the restaurant is running,” whether you’re off the schedule that night or on vacation, Goalen says. At her level, there’s an continuous stream of communication, whether she’s technically working or not.

“What was really impactful was not having that being there,” she says. “From a day-to-day perspective, the living, breathing organism that is restaurants was not there in the way it typically is. I was able to be in a quieter headspace for sure. There’s a lot of freedom in that.”

The break proved to be well timed. As Goalen predicted, those first few months with the restaurants back open had taken their toll, and her team had started hitting a wall. The restaurants were closed to the public for closer to 10 days, giving employees a buffer on either side of their week off to wind down the operations and then ramp back up again before diners returned. By setting the dates early on, AC Restaurants also made it easier for their people to plan accordingly.

But Goalen and Christensen spent only half their break down on the coast. They used the first few days to take care of various maintenance work and repairs that were easier to do with the restaurants closed. Goalen admitted that she isn’t great at unplugging from work.

“It’s almost more stressful to me to wait and come back to a giant mountain of emails,” she says, adding that she’d rather do a little each day than to let work build up.

And that’s exactly what happened when staff returned from their time off.

After a ten-day hiatus, Poole'side Pies reopened and prepared for the busy fall season
After a ten-day hiatus, Poole'side Pies reopened and prepared for the busy fall season (AC Restaurants)

“Restaurants are so much about momentum,” Goalen says. “You’re sort of doing tomorrow’s tasks today, especially with prep, scheduling, and ordering. I loved not having to worry about everything and knowing everything was sort of put to bed. But we also heard and felt and saw that the week coming back was very difficult, in terms of getting that momentum back.”

Reopening several restaurants all at once, even with a prep day built into the schedule, still felt overwhelming for many of their employees.

“There are things about the flow of restaurants that mean sometimes that it’s harder to stop than it is to slow down, or to figure out how you can step away without everything shutting down,” Goalen says.

Because they strategically timed the week off for early August, it’s not a given that AC Restaurants will offer the same break next summer. But they are committed to prioritizing mental health for themselves and their people, both when it comes to time off and with the larger culture in the organization, they said.

“I think we’re looking at every decision through that lens,” Christensen says. “Everything used to be go, go, go, and now we think through and ask ourselves, ‘To what end, at what cost, and what does this mean to us?’”

The solution may be shorter, well-timed breaks across the restaurants, Goalen says. Indeed, this is a practice that many of their peers in the industry are starting to implement.

Their friends at FIG in Charleston instituted Mental Health Mondays in September, closing for an extra day a week to allow employees to rest. In Raleigh, popular neighborhood spot Sola Coffee took a similar approach, closing every Monday in August for “Sola Summer Break.” At the end of the month, the coffeeshop announced it would extend the practice amid staffing shortages. “Thank you Raleigh for allowing our team this much-needed break in the midst of this wild season!” they wrote on Instagram. The café didn’t reopen on Mondays until Sept. 27.

Durham's popular Loaf bakery recently put a sign on the door announcing a brief closure in October "to allow our staff a week of rest, relaxation, and reflection on where we are — in life, in our communities, in the pandemic and in our relationships."

AC Restaurants will close again briefly for the weekend after Christmas, one way to offer an “impactful” break without the reopening burden experienced in August and without losing momentum, Goalen says. She’s interested in trying something akin to FIG’s and Sola’s approach, too, but noted that their restaurants already aren’t operating at full capacity. For example, Poole’s and Death & Taxes are each only open four days a week.

“Moving forward, I don’t know if we’d be able to commit to the full week closure if we’re still a reduced operation,” Goalen says.

The partial closures are meant to be an intentional way to avoid going full tilt, being mindful of their staff’s hours. Ideally, AC Restaurants would be able to add staff and serve patrons comfortably and safely more days a week. Ironically, being open more days each week could make it easier to close for a longer stretch — especially financially.

While there is an economic hit to closing for a week, Goalen emphasizes that there’s a price to working relentlessly, too.

“I think we would’ve felt the financial impact if we hadn’t [closed] in different ways,” she says. “Probably in terms of people being burnt out. You’re never going to see the hidden cost of not doing it.”

It’s the same thing with sick time and other benefits. When taking a holistic, long-term view, it becomes more apparent that failing to prioritize their team’s mental health comes with a price tag, too. AC Restaurants now offers an employee assistance program that includes three free counseling sessions, either in-person or virtually.

“The counseling piece in particular is something we’ve seen a lot more traction on in the last year and a half,” Goalen says, adding that the whole industry is reeling from collective trauma from the pandemic. “We’re reminding people of it often.”

They’re also encouraging people to really disconnect when they’re off work or on vacation.

“We’re way better than we used to be about respecting people’s time off,” Goalen says. “It’s something we try to impress upon all of our managers, encouraging them not to check in. I do think we’re in a new era where you don’t have to miss out on all major life events. I hope that’s the lived experience for more and more people in the restaurant industry in general.”

Covid also forced restaurants to be flexible, which has opened her team up to things they wouldn’t have considered in the past. If someone calls out and the restaurant is short staffed, they’ll limit the menu or turn off takeout for the night to avoid being too overwhelmed.

“Pre-Covid, we just didn’t do that. It just didn’t occur to us,” Goalen says. “Our perspective has shifted a little bit. I do feel like we have more control over and comfortability with doing things differently, before the wave completely washes over your head.”

More than anything, Goalen emphasizes that they don’t have all the answers. Or maybe any of them. “It all feels like a grand experiment in a lot of ways,” she says. “I feel like it’s a little early to be saying if something is successful or not, because it’s all still evolving.”

Triangle

About the Author

Eric Ginsburg

Eric is an independent journalist based in Raleigh. His work has appeared in Bon Appétit, VICE, Wine Enthusiast, Teen Vogue, Serious Eats, Business Insider, and many other publications. He previously worked as an editor and staff writer at Triad City Beat and YES! Weekly in Greensboro and as an editor at INDY Week in Durham.