Ah, the joys of a food service job: long shifts, irritated customers, and burning your hand on the grill. For most people, this is depressing, but for today’s guest, making smashburgers is part of his strategy to fight depression. Listen in as pop-up restaurateur Zack Fernandes explains how the repetitive routine, the social interaction, and even the burns help him manage the symptoms of his “cocktail of mental illnesses.”
Zack Fernandes is a food and beverage enthusiast, freelance writer, and proprietor of Lil’ Eagle Burger, a monthly smashburger pop-up. The San Francisco Chronicle called Zack’s burgers “superlative” and “a fleeting, intense pleasure.”
Zack and his pop-up are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has lived and worked for the past 6 years. Zack has suffered with mental illness since young adulthood, and sees cooking as a therapeutic experience.To learn about Lil’ Eagle Burger or to read Zack’s writing, visit zackfernandes.com. You can find Zack on Twitter and Instagram at @zachareats, and Lil’ Eagle Burger on Instagram at @lileagleburger.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today we have Zack Fernandes. Mr. Fernandes is a food and beverage enthusiast, freelance writer and proprietor of Lil’ Eagle Burger, a monthly smashburger pop up that he uses in part to help manage his depression. Mr. Fernandes, welcome to the show.
Zack Fernandes: Thanks very much for having me, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: Well, you are very welcome. Now listen, many people believe that working in the service industry is a major cause of depression, but you started your pop up for the sole purpose of reducing your own depression. Can you explain the dichotomy?
Zack Fernandes: You know, first of all, I should disclose, obviously, I’m not a full-time service industry professional, but I can empathize with their experience. I think that it’s a tough industry, you know, long hours and especially with the pandemic, a lot of instability in the job market, businesses opening and closing, some permanently. So for folks who do that full time, I can see how stressful it is. Luckily for me, I’m in a position where I get to enter it on my own terms once a month in a format that really works for me. And I think that’s a huge help for me to be able to do something that I love and serve food to people.
Gabe Howard: It’s interesting because I think about other areas in America where people do things that are horrible and hard and difficult for fun, and I think about apple picking. I mean, farm labor is grueling work, but yet every fall, droves of Americans go out and pick apples for a few hours, and they talk about this wonderful experience. Is that maybe a good analogy for your position that because you only do it a couple of days a month, that it really is cathartic and then you have a whole month to rebuild that energy?
Zack Fernandes: I think so, and I’ve never been apple picking, but I’d imagine that’s pretty close to what it’s like. It’s almost perhaps the most socially acceptable version of controlled self-harm. It’s bizarre to want to put yourself in a position where you feel a little bit of stress, but at the same time, it’s incredibly activating. And you’re right, there is an element of recovery, and being able to do it once a month is incredibly helpful.
Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about your personal depression, let’s sort of gauge what we’re dealing with for lack of a better word. Can you tell us your mental health story?
Zack Fernandes: Yeah, I have what I like to refer to as a tasting menu of various mental illnesses, and it’s something that I’ve struggled with or adapted to as perhaps another way to look at it since my early teenage years. So I suffer from depression as well as anxiety and a little bit of obsessive compulsive disorder. And I’ve struggled for many years to find the right balance of pharmacotherapy and talk therapy that work for me, and I’m just grateful to have the resources to be able to manage my mental health.
Gabe Howard: And is the pop up your only management, or is it part of an overall toolbox?
Zack Fernandes: It’s definitely part of a bigger toolbox. I like the term toolbox because it implies that you sort of pick what works for you in the moment, and I think that unfortunately, a lot of the perception of mental health treatment is that there’s a one size fits all approach, whether it’s medication or talk therapy. As soon as I realized that, that it is a toolbox and you should pick what works in the moment, I felt a lot better about it.
Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about what led you down this path. You’re sitting there, you have, as you put it, a tasting menu of mental health issues and you think to yourself, OK, I think I would feel better if I started a restaurant that was part-time?
Zack Fernandes: No, that’s that’s a great question, I wasn’t motivated by the sort of healing effect of cooking, I didn’t even consider it. I think when I began this, this began just sort of as a labor of love. I love burgers. I love the smashburger format. They’re very tasty. And at the time that I started, they were almost impossible to get in in the San Francisco Bay Area. So I started to do it for a few friends and then a bar was interested in hosting me and I did it there and the reception was great and I thought, Oh, maybe, maybe I have something here that people would enjoy. The more I did it, the more I realized how helpful it was, especially when the pandemic hit. You know, the feelings of isolation sort of creep in and being able to do a few events during the pandemic, even if they were pick up and to go only. It just made me feel a bit more connected to the world. And so then I think that’s when I realized that this was something that I could use for more than just the burgers. And I wish I knew about it a long time ago. Maybe I would have started this much earlier.
Gabe Howard: This is obviously a mental health show and not how to have a side hustle show. But I have to ask, and I know it’s a horribly inappropriate question, but is this profitable? Is this also something that you can use to pay your bills?
Zack Fernandes: Uhm, it’s, I’m not in the red. Because I only do it once a month scale is tricky. So for instance, I don’t get any wholesale price benefits for buying. I can’t hold ingredients because they’ll go bad before the next pop up and so I have to plan for it really well, but I don’t lose money on it. And I think if I were to open up brick and mortar, it would be risky, but probably could turn a profit.
Gabe Howard: I only ask because I think of my mom and my mom, she’s a crafter, and she has what she calls a self-sustaining hobby. She makes all of these crafts, she paints all these things, they are very beautiful. She sells them for a profit like church bazaars and things like that. And while my mom doesn’t have mental health issues, I know that she does this because she loves it, and she wants a reason to create all this beautiful stuff and put it out in the world, but not go bankrupt doing it. Is that like, I’m really trying hard not to say, are you my mom? Like, Are you doing my mom’s method? Because she’s been doing this for, like 30 years.
Zack Fernandes: Yeah, I think that I am doing a little bit of your mom’s method, but to be honest with you, if I had to pay to do this, I happily would. It’s that rewarding and being able to cover the expenses is fantastic, but I would pay for it in a heartbeat.
Gabe Howard: Let’s deep dive into this. What about the process helps you manage your depression?
Zack Fernandes: I think there’s a couple of elements at play here. One is certainly this element of behavioral activation. I think that putting something on the calendar that I know I’m going to be excited about, that I can plan for, adds a little bit of structure that’s really helpful for me, especially if I’m in a particularly depressed mood. Just having that on the calendar and being able to look forward to it and plan for it is great. I think that the other element is the intensity and stress of service. Again, because I run this once a month, there tends to be a bit of a buildup of demand and things go quick and it’s a huge rush. So it’s not a slow and steady kind of process. It comes as one huge crashing wave and then there’s a bit of recovery after that. And I think I do like a little bit of the painful side of it. It’s, it just, when you don’t really feel anything, it’s nice to feel something, right? And being in a hot kitchen and sweating a little bit and burning my hands on the rising steam of a freshly shaved pile of onions. All of that is a very manageable and, dare I say, pleasurable sort of threshold of pain.
Gabe Howard: Now, some people would hear manageable pain, and I believe you said it’s a socially acceptable form of self-harm and they would think, well, well, now wait a minute, we don’t have socially acceptable alcoholism or socially acceptable drug use or. I think it might hit some people’s ears as you’re abusing yourself, but it’s OK because it’s, well, socially acceptable. Can you talk that out a little more? Because I’m hearing my grandfather, who’s an engineer, say, Hey, buildings need a little bit of stress to stand. I can relate to that, but I’m hearing you say, Hey, it’s hurting me, but it’s OK and I’m trying to marry those two in my own mind.
Zack Fernandes: Sure, I think that the analogy of buildings needing stress to stand is a great one, I’ve never, never thought about it that way. And I’m reluctant to endorse self-harm as a method of managing depression, obviously. I think that in addition to being risky, there’s many reasons that one should seek treatment if they’re self-harming. But I listened to an episode you did a while back where you interviewed somebody about the psychology of self-harm, and I think a lot of that makes sense to people who are experiencing it. And for me to externalize what is very hard to manage or what I like to call sort of psychic pain, the existential angst of being, to be able to put that in a form that I can manage and feel externally and physically, it’s helpful. I think it’s equal parts distracting from other types of pain, but also, it’s much more manageable. I know that if I burn my hand by accident on a griddle, it’ll heal, right? Like you have a relative sense of the end of, the end of the pain and the healing process, I think for internal and psychic pain and sort of emotional pain, you don’t really have that same clear path. You don’t have the benefit of knowing that things will heal. There’s just no guarantee of that.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Zack Fernandes discussing how he uses his Lil’ Eagle Burger pop-up shop to manage depression. In many ways, I think I’m following along perfectly, sincerely, I think about my grandfather and he says to this very day that at the end of the day, having a drink tastes better if you worked hard all day. He’s 90 years old. He’s still mows his own lawn, he still washes his own car because he says that food and drink tastes better if he has hard work under his belt, and you mentioned accidentally burning yourself on the griddle. He mentions, you know, calloused hands or, you know, accidentally hitting his leg with the weed whacker. And all of these things make him feel better and more alive and have this sense of satisfaction. Is that what it’s like? It’s just this Hey, I did this and other people don’t, and that makes me feel good.
Zack Fernandes: I do think that’s a big part of it, and I think that one of the perhaps the most harmful misconceptions about mental health issues like depression is that it’s the same thing as sadness, and for me, it really isn’t. It’s just an absence of feeling. And in many ways, it’s an absence of worth, of value, right? Perceived value to society and to others. You sort of doubt whether anybody loves you or cares about you, and the logical part of your brain knows that that’s obviously not the case, but there is another part of you that doesn’t get that. And I think that, yes, the value of hard work and being unique in the space and especially doing something well does convince you a little bit. Maybe for a few moments that, hey, you know, you’re contributing to society in a positive way.
Gabe Howard: I can only imagine that the routine of it has to be reassuring. Again, please correct me if I’m wrong, but you know, let’s consider somebody places an order, right? So that sort of starts the clock ticking and it creates a list right? Their order, and you have to do stuff for that. First, you have to take the order, then you have to make their order, then you have to get paid for their order, then you have to deliver their order and then that ends the list. So it’s just it’s like dozens of little lists that begin and end. So they begin. That starts the process and they end, that completes the process. Or you get that rush of success. Is that what it feels like?
Zack Fernandes: It is, and I’ve never thought about it that way, I guess it is a sort of a collection of small wins that repeat over and over in a very, very short period of time. You know, on the topic of OCD and compulsivity, food service is a great way to channel that as well. Everything has to be organized and sanitary and prepped well, and in order, that’s really therapeutic for me because I’m unable to do that at home. You know, my house is constantly in a mess. It’s not as clean as I want it to be, but the rules are different in a kitchen and being able to sort of indulge my compulsivity and my obsessions a little bit by doing all of that prep work and having everything neat and organized scratches an itch for sure. I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can pop up and serve really just two things, and they’re both very similar. They’re just sort of two versions of of a burger and crossing each one off of the list and getting the validation from it is, yeah, is absolutely part of the appeal.
Gabe Howard: I’m a firm believer that to help manage depression, you got to get out there. I say this all the time. Volunteer, go for a walk, help somebody, get a routine, put something on the calendar. Just do something. You’ve taken this to, I’m going to say an extreme. Most people don’t start pop up restaurants. I’m sitting there and I’m thinking about Mr. Fernandes thinking to himself, You know, I could start a restaurant. Pick up the story from there, because this isn’t something that you can just wake up and do one morning. You had to put real effort into this.
Zack Fernandes: Well, I think that was the surprise to me, it kind of is something you can just wake up and do one morning. I didn’t think that this would be possible. I had a lot of fears and anxiety about whether I could do this. You know, who am I to sort of enter this space and think that I can serve food? You know, I hold chefs and restaurateurs in such high regard. It almost felt disrespectful, perhaps for me to think that I could just kind of waltz in and serve people. But what I’ve learned is that nobody really cares. It’s just about doing something that people appreciate. And of course, very few of my customers have the context. They don’t understand what motivates me. And so for them, a burger is just a burger. You know, once you realize that, I think it’s also a little bit freeing because you release a lot of the anxiety and the, you know, the mental buildup of what you’re doing and it transforms it to being kind of just about the food. I think you’re right that getting out there and being active is important. It’s certainly something that’s helped me, but that’s also something that’s much easier said than done. Finding motivation is incredibly difficult. And I think the nice thing, at least about this pop up is because there is a bit of a demand, I’m pushed into it. I think that knowing that people are excited about it, knowing that people are asking about it also does help sort of nudge me in a direction where perhaps otherwise I would be inclined to stop and wallow.
Gabe Howard: Does knowing people are excited about it and happy about it, does that build your confidence? Does it give you a boost? Is that alone? You know, forget about the days you’re actually working, but just knowing that people want your services? Does that provide a, I want to say an anti-depression boost.
Zack Fernandes: It does and it doesn’t. I think the self-doubt creeps in constantly. This mental analysis of are people lying to me? Are friends just saying this stuff is tasty because they don’t want to upset me or hurt my feelings. But as things grow, you begin to realize that no, maybe that’s not the case. But it doesn’t stop me, I think, from waking up and questioning that. The lack of self-esteem and the feeling of not being valuable is really challenging. But it is nice in the moment, and so I’m grateful to have the experience, especially if people are effusive about the quality of the food. It was great to be reviewed in the Chronicle, for example. And so those are little confidence boosters. I would say they’re fleeting, but they’re important.
Gabe Howard: I completely understand what you mean by they’re fleeting. Whenever somebody compliments me or books me or writes a review that’s positive about the podcast, I always think, Yeah, I made it. And then about five minutes later, I’m like, Well, but did I? I mean, did I? I mean that person likes it, but I don’t know that person. Maybe they’re often wrong. Is that sort of what you’re describing? That self-doubt that just it alleviates it for a moment and then it just comes right back?
Zack Fernandes: It does come right back, and I appreciate the, I appreciate what you’re saying about questioning the validity of someone else’s opinion. It’s incredible the lengths that we’ll go to in our minds to sort of make ourselves feel bad. And I’ve tried to unpack this with my psychiatrist and I don’t really know where it’s rooted. I perhaps have no reason to have low self-esteem, but then somehow not all of me gets that message. And that makes me sad because I almost feel bad. It’s almost like I’m rejecting the empathy of others, but it’s all wrapped up in this self-confidence and self-esteem issue, I think, because if you don’t feel like you’re worthy of that because of the illness you have, then there’s no real way for you to truly accept anything from complements to love to well-wishes.
Gabe Howard: Depression is insidious, right? It wraps its arms around everything. Logically, you know that you’re successful, but depression kind of pokes in and says, but are ya? But are ya? And for whatever reason, because that’s just how the illness works, we think, well, maybe depression is right. And it sounds like in many ways, your pop up is a distraction to that. I know when I’m really busy and really focused, depression just can’t kind of sneak in because I’m just ultra focused on this task. But as soon as the task is over, I crash. So I have two questions for you. One. Have you noticed that? Have you noticed that when you’re really busy with your pop up, it sort of preoccupies your brain so depression can’t get in? And two, when this whole thing is over, you’re done, you’re at home. You had a successful event. Do you have a crash feeling?
Zack Fernandes: I do have a crash feeling, and I think that I’m fortunate. I know that your experience with bipolar disorder is, you know, a little bit different from sort of what I feel. But you know, the uni-polarity I think of the depression also is kind of a myth because I do feel those ups and downs a little bit, perhaps not as seriously as folks with bipolar disorder do, but keeping busy is a big part of it. I like to sort of tell people, I feel like if I stop running, I’ll die. You know, I just need to cram a lot of stuff into my life. I’m kind of a hedonist. It’s almost like it’s an all or nothing thing. Either I’m doing nothing or I’m doing everything. I run this pop up. I have a full time job. I’m studying to get my MBA. You know, I freelance write on the side and there is an unfortunate crash that comes and it happens most often when I forget to pack my schedule right? All of a sudden, you end up with a week where you’ve got nothing to do and too much time on your hands. And then I think that’s where the unfortunate, that’s where you give your brain a little bit too much time to dig in and criticize yourself. So staying busy is a big, big help.
Gabe Howard: I love it, I love it, Mr. Fernandes, where can folks find you online? I know that if they’re in San Francisco, they can visit your pop up, but for the rest of the world, how can they follow you?
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for being here.
Zack Fernandes: Thank you, Gabe. I really, really appreciated our chat. I wish I would have known about this podcast a long, long time ago and yeah, really appreciate you having me.
Gabe Howard: Well, I love hearing that, and to all of our listeners, you got to tell people. Nobody told Mr. Fernandes and look, look, look how sad he sounded, right?
Zack Fernandes: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it was. It was good to go Inside Mental Health, and hopefully I can take some of it with me.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome and a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award-winning public speaker who is available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can get a signed copy with free show swag, or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please follow or subscribe to the show, it’s absolutely free. And hey, recommend the show to your friends and colleagues. Social media, email, or good old word of mouth. I’ll see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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