On an overcast morning in May, a dozen people and one Labrador named Pete gather together in downtown Austin, outside of a sleek, black building that looks like it should be an art gallery. These are men and women, white folks and people of color, some graying and others looking fresh out of school, in both long sleeves and tattoo sleeves. Everyone’s stretching.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, folks arrived at 10 a.m. today prepared to tackle the route: left on Fifth, south on Congress over Town Lake, catch Riverside over to Auditorium Shores, trail to the Lamar bridge, Cesar Chavez back to Congress. Within a short 5k, this path simultaneously puts you face-to-face with Austin’s beauty and the city’s challenges (the river vista and Capitol on the horizon; the construction equipment and homeless encampments). As you navigate the route with the runners of Comedor Run Club, you might also hear a horror story about some militant chef one person worked for out of culinary school, or learn where reishi mushrooms can be foraged downtown.
“All right, I see some new faces so I’m going to do the thing,” Philip Speer starts off. The chef and co-owner of Comedor, a hotspot for modern Mexican fare, addresses his restaurant’s namesake fitness crew with a few remarks that feel like a combination of coach’s speech, pre-shift meeting, and advice from an older sibling.
“Welcome everyone and happy birthday Mackenzie. We all run at different paces: we run casually; we have fun. Sometimes, you’ll see some of the people go real fast—we’ll let ’em. But it’s an inclusive club. We start together, we end together. We’re just trying to create a new space for the restaurant and beverage industry and friends, something a little different. So, have a good run.”
“It’s an inclusive club” isn’t a phrase normally applied to the restaurant industry. The lifestyle, with its long hours and proximity to food and booze, can enable some unhealthy behaviors. According to a 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, accommodations and food services ranks as the number-one industry for illegal drug usage, and third-highest for heavy alcohol usage. Combine that with a pandemic that forced restaurant workers to risk their health for uncertain jobs. Restaurant workers, not unlike the rest of us, can clearly stand to benefit from the mind-clearing power and endorphin rush of a friendly run.
Speer knows all this firsthand. He’s had tough battles with addiction in his past and navigated the chaos of 2020 at the helm of Comedor. But through running, he found an activity that helped him refocus his time and energy in a positive way. Now, with the enthusiasm of the converted, Speer wants the rest of the restaurant industry to embrace an alternative, gentler lifestyle. His goal with CRC is perhaps most succinctly explained in the group’s preferred hashtag, which appears at the end of many sweaty, smiley group photos on Instagram: #shiftthepostshift.
“I didn’t say, ‘Okay, I’m going to open a restaurant and start a run club for the restaurant,’” Speer says. “We went running because the one thing we could do at any time, without much planning or any equipment, was finding a break to go out for a run. At first it was just four of us, so we found a route and ran a 5k through downtown and the trails. And it felt nice: we were outside, and it was manageable, just thirty minutes or so. It didn’t take too much out of us and then we could go back to work.”
Comedor Run Club will turn two this summer, and its reputation around town is starting to rival that of the restaurant itself. “After a simple Google search of ‘Austin run clubs,’ they were one of the only ones still operating in November of last year,” says Andrew Haack, a server at Fixe Southern House who’s been running with CRC ever since he found it online last fall. “I just jumped in with them, and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made so far.” Not only did Haack find friends through the club soon after he moved to town, but he also learned about his current job while running alongside Fixe chef and owner James Robert.
It wasn’t so long ago that Speer himself started running. He took to the wellness lifestyle around the start of 2015, after he hit a personal and professional low. In October 2014, Speer received a DWI after driving drunk, flipping his car, and attempting to flee the scene on foot. It was his fourth DWI over several years of drug and alcohol addiction. Speer ultimately received a ten-day jail sentence and seven years of probation. That led him to a recovery program, which is where he began to lace up.
“I didn’t start running until I was thirty-seven. Through running, I lost one hundred pounds and became healthier—quit drinking, smoking, and eating crappy,” Speer says. He’s sober, and so are other CRC runners, but he stops short of calling it a sober running group. “We’re a healthy alternative to the typical restaurant lifestyle. And lots of people who get sober run; it’s a thing. So it all kind of fell together at the same time. Everyone was looking for a place to connect and meet that didn’t involve bars or drinking.”
The more Speer and his Comedor colleagues ran, the better they felt, despite the increased day-to-day demands and stress at the restaurant. So as a bit of proselytizing and a bit of motivation, Speer started to keep his impromptu group accountable by documenting each session on Instagram—the first official @ComedorRunClub post dates back to July 2019, only three months after the restaurant opened. The runners started making their own digital declarations, and in the tight-knit Austin culinary community, the club soon gained attention.
Run clubs certainly exist elsewhere in Texas. Lake Grapevine Runners and Walkers welcomes movers of all paces every Saturday and Sunday at 7 a.m.; the Plano Pacers ask for membership dues, which it spends in part on trophies for its community. In Houston, members of the Laces Out Eureka Heights Running Club get $2 off a post-run beer at the club’s namesake brewery. But Speer had stumbled onto a need in Austin. Within its first few months, Comedor Run Club grew to include industry pros all over the city, with members from local spots like Jester King Brewery, Odd Duck, Bufalina, and Carpenters Hall. Some people outside the restaurant world, those working in real estate or at the nearby Loop Running Supply, joined too. Before the club had even been around for a full year, Speer says participant counts started climbing to between thirty and forty people on some early 2020 runs. “It was amazing to see us all down the street, running Congress at 10 a.m.,” he says. Then came March 2020.
“When the pandemic hit and that went away immediately, it was a little shock to some people’s systems, including my own,” Speer says. “That community and peer support is important to people creating healthy habits. A habit is created after repetition. So when that goes away and you don’t have that repetition or the same community to hold you accountable to that repetition, it’s a little bit of a shock.”
Much like Comedor itself, which began offering delivery meal kits during the pandemic, CRC had to pivot. The club began offering virtual runs and Zoom yoga, then reintroduced in-person runs with new precautions. Speer set clear guidelines about wearing masks, only congregating outside, and keeping a safe distance when gathering pre- or post-run. “As risky as it may have been to run together in person, it felt more risky to have people without the community they needed to make good decisions,” he says. “So we ran.”
Instead of pre-run chats about the day’s route or introductions for new members, Speer says runners began sharing ideas and resources regarding Paycheck Protection Program loans, tips on where restaurant workers could get vaccines, or intel on what spots were opening up and in need of staff. When the team at Comedor started Assembly, the meal kit business, they invited chefs who had been in touch through the club to participate. And when the February winter storm hit, the CRC runners pooled resources for water and supplies, too.
As more Texans get vaccinated, the club is growing back to pre-pandemic levels. In late April, in the first public race held in the city during the COVID-19 era, twenty-plus CRC members took on the Austin Half Marathon. It was the first-ever race for some members, like chef Arturo Navarrete of Doc B’s. He’d joined CRC earlier in 2021 on a recommendation from his now-girlfriend.
“I started running during the summer last year, and I couldn’t get past half a mile without stopping. I couldn’t wrap my head around people doing it,” he says. “But I did the Austin Half and beat my goal of under two hours—it was great. Now I can run a lot faster, and I see new CRC people going through what I was going through last year, struggling to keep pace or to keep moving. I’m like, ‘Yeah, it just takes patience. Don’t give it up, and you’ll get there.’”
Knowing the impact this club has had on a small group of restaurant workers, Speer now wants to replicate it for more people, in town and beyond. Later this year, he hopes to start a CRC nonprofit with two goals in mind: promoting a gentler way of restaurant living and lowering the barriers to entry for running. “The Austin Marathon this year was $160—that’s a lot of money, especially for restaurant wages,” he says. “Other people would come and run in Vans for their first run, and you can’t run in Vans. You’re going to hurt yourself. But new runners are prone to injury due to lack of experience or lack of knowledge and training, and the cost of training plans or physical therapy are unrealistic costs for the restaurant industry.”
For now, as Speer reiterated on that recent May morning, Comedor Run Club continues to welcome all—those coming to running through a sobriety journey, those looking to train for a 5k, those just hoping to meet some people in town. The athletic abilities vary, so chances are someone in the club keeps a similar pace to you, whether you’re running a twelve-minute mile or have worked up to a faster pace. But no matter what happens during the preceding 2.9 miles, you’ll definitely end by running down Colorado Street, toward a nondescript downtown corner, as a group of your peers clap you across the finish line.