By Prioritizing Staff’s Health, Restaurants Prosper Despite Pandemic
Sep 22, 2021
Sutter Health
Restaurant with Bay Bridge in Background

For the managing partner of a pair of acclaimed San Francisco restaurants that were forced to temporarily close during the COVID-19 pandemic, the health of the businesses wasn’t the only thing on his mind. It was also the health of his 200 employees.

Pete Sittnick, managing partner of Land and Sea Restaurants that owns the Embarcadero’s Waterbar and EPIC Steak (pictured above), decided it was important to continue to provide health insurance for the restaurants’ employees even during state-mandated closures when they weren’t able to work.

Restaurants' General Partner Pete Sittnick

Pete Sittnick says by continuing to provide health insurance to his two restaurants’ employees, they have been able to retain their qualified, talented staff.

“When we were forced to temporarily close,” Sittnick said, “many of our employees felt significant anxiety being at home in isolation with a reduced income. To help support employees during this difficult time, we chose to continue providing health benefits and remove that major concern for them, show our loyalty and solidarity, and offer some peace of mind. We know that our employees’ physical and mental health is essential to our success.”

Now that many restaurants are back serving customers, some of them are having problems finding qualified staff to replace those that found other work or pursued other opportunities. But Waterbar and EPIC Steak were able to retain most of their talented and valuable staff due in part to the decision to continue to provide health insurance and other creative assistive programs.

“Offering health benefits through these times has made such a difference for our employees, some of whom have been with us from the beginning,” Sittnick said. “They worry about caring for their families with reduced employment hours and the future of our industry—they shouldn’t also need to worry about their health benefits.”

For their health insurance, Waterbar and EPIC Steak offer employees Sutter Health Plus because it provides access to an integrated network of clinicians, hospitals and same-day Sutter Walk-In Care locations across the Bay Area, Sittnick said. He also appreciates that plan designs, benefits and features are easy to understand and use for the group’s diverse, often younger employee base.

Hospitality staff often work outside normal business hours and need ways to access care that fits into their schedule. Sittnick says his employees like the convenient tools—such as the My Health Online patient portal and the health plan’s Member Portal—that offer easy access to view benefit documents, cost share information and ID cards, book a video visit with a clinician or find a nearby Walk-In Care, all from a mobile device.

Whenever possible, Sittnick says he spreads the word about all the tools, benefits and features available to his employees through the health plan so they can take an active role in managing their health.

“Employees need to know they have a plan we selected with their needs in mind, which services are covered, and how to easily access care,” Sittnick said. “We communicate this during pre-shift meetings and through email, and post information on our employee portal and in breakrooms.”

Waterbar restaurant photo

EPIC Steak’s sister restaurant, Waterbar, also provides spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge.

In addition to offering health plan coverage, the group supports its employees in other innovative and meaningful ways.

“We create flexibility in work schedules for employees to get tested and vaccinated for COVID-19 and give them the day off after their second vaccination. We encourage employees to use their mental health benefits,” Sittnick said.

But some programs offered by the restaurant group aren’t just health-related. “During closures, we created a fund to provide pay for employees,” he said. “We also partnered with a local nonprofit to offer an employee meal program, distributing packaged food to employees and their families twice a week. These initiatives were a great way to stay connected to staff.”

Sittnick said he is proud of their accomplishments and that of the thousand things they have done to adapt, the choice to support employee health was an easy one.

“In a city like San Francisco where restaurants are an important part of the economy, it’s been sad to see so many boarded up and some that cannot afford to reopen. Many are seeing fewer customers and having difficulties finding and retaining staff,” he said. “We’ve chosen to invest in the health of our people, and it has helped us stay strong.”

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