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Kelli Valade is a Dallas-based CEO within the restaurant industry. She talks to 35 Thousand about how her world has changed in lockdown, from the management of her team to virtual Happy Hours and the coming together of her neighbourhood.

Q:Tell us about your work…

A: “I’m currently the CEO and President of Black Box Intelligence. We are the leading provider of data, analytics and insights for the restaurant industry. Our portfolio of products are used by restaurant operating companies to drive superior performance. Prior to joining Black Box Intelligence in 2019, I spent 22 years at Brinker International.  My last position was COO and President of Chili’s Grill and Bar. I am passionate about restaurants and I am passionate about helping those that work in, and support restaurants.”

Q: What’s your context outside of work?

A: “I grew up in Upstate NY, though I have lived in Dallas Texas for the last 27 years. 

 I am a mother to two awesome children, Morgan, a 19-year old freshman at OU #boomersooner and Christian, a high school junior.  My husband Don has been my partner in life for over 26 years; we have been married for over 21.  We have an awesome Golden Doodle named Lucy, who is particularly curious about post COVID-19 life, wondering why we are all home so much, and in general is just loving the extra attention. My hobbies are working out, especially attending hot yoga classes, cooking Italian food, and binge-watching fixer upper shows on HGTV.  I believe that I have a knack for design, though I have no formal training, but I have flipped a couple of houses . When we travel, and we do a lot (or at least we used to), we divide our time between new places and countries we have never been to before, and our second home in Boston’s North End.”

Q: What is your normal day-to-day life like?

A: “My normal day-to-day was leading and managing our Dallas-based company.  My focus has been on taking a founder and family-owned company to the next level to realize our full potential in the marketplace.  I spend my time driving innovation, leveraging strategic partnerships with our restaurant clients, speaking at industry events, and helping others understand industry trends, insights and best practices.

My new normal is doing some of the same, but my time is now being spent thinking about what our business will look like post COVID-19. Because the restaurant industry has been hit hard, so have we.  I used to travel about 25-30% of the time, speak at a dozen or so industry events a year, and teach/coach on leadership topics. That has all changed and it looks like I will have the summer off, like many others.  My day is now spent thinking about how government funding can help my company and the restaurant industry. I had to lay off a third of our team, only after exhausting all other measures to keep us financially viable and sustainable.  It was heart-breaking, but it was a decision that had to be made.

We’ve also used this time to offer our assistance to the industry at large, and we have been very busy trying to answer questions and help our customers who are in desperate situations. We are now running our data and reports for free, and letting customers defer their payments to us, in hopes that they remember us when this is all over.  It’s a risk, and I can only hope I am making the right decisions for our future. Aside from my team, the recovery of the restaurant industry is my first priority. It’s an industry I have always loved, and I have never appreciated it more.”

Q:How has it impacted you personally and professionally?

A: “Personally, and as a mom, I am a natural worrier when it comes to my family.  I have become pretty fanatical about handwashing, and cleaning products.  I have also tried to follow ‘Shelter in Place’ 100% because that is the way I believe we will stay safe, and because I believe it is our responsibility in doing the right thing. I have been at odds with family and friends at times, and that has been difficult.  I am also a rule follower, and these are the rules, so I will follow them and hope it creates order in a time of chaos. That said, this is one of the scariest things I have ever experienced, and I hate it. I hate it so much, and I want someone to tell me with certainty that everything is going to be ok.   I’d also prefer it if that same person can tell me exactly WHEN we will be okay .  Until then, I am not ok, and every day there is a black cloud that I see above us all.

Professionally, I bounce back and forth.  I think I know what my company needs from me, and I have a job to do, and that brings me energy.  It doesn’t bring me satisfaction, but there is energy for it and urgency.  I also believe the most important thing I can do right now is provide a steady and compassionate hand.  Leading with purpose has never been more important, and that same purpose is being tested and questioned every day, but it is the only way.   I’ve tried to stay calm, even when I don’t feel calm.  My leadership team has been there for me, and done an amazing job of being courageous and taking care of their teams.  I am grateful and learning from them every day. 

No one has a playbook, and no one has the answers, but I am grateful for the friends and leaders in my life that are giving me strength.  I’ve also learned to do wellness checks with people on the team – I learned that from one of my leaders, and it has been helpful.    Finally, like everyone else that is now working from home, we are finding ways to stay connected beyond the typical conference call. We’re doing Zoom meetings and finding ways to “see each other”.  We’ve even done Zoom Happy Hours as a team. Connection is so important right now, and seeing people faces on a screen makes you feel at least a little connected.  I also started doing virtual Happy Hours with peers in the industry and friends – it has helped to know I am not alone. “

Q: What are you finding challenging?

A: “The uncertainty; the fear for my own safety and the fear that people that I love could be hurt.”

kelli valade
Kelly in work mode pre COVID-19
Q: Where are you finding hope and optimism?

A: “In addition to the above, I am finding hope and optimism in talking to others. In some cases, I am reaching out to those that may have stronger faith than me.  Leaning on folks that process things completely differently than me, has been helpful.”

Q: What do you miss about life before COVID-19 that you never thought you would?

A: “I DO NOT miss my long commute to my office every day, but I miss the time to think and listen to music, and think about the day ahead. I miss NOT worrying to this degree.”

Q: How are you getting through?

A: “I have tried to stick to my routines as much as possible. I still get up early, even though I have saved 2 hours a day in commuting.  I get up now at 6 am and work out, which is a whole hour later than I used to get up, so I appreciate that.  My daily workouts and yoga are critical for me.  It’s also been critical I get “dressed” for work each day; though I am certainly not getting dressed in the same way – yoga pants are the daily uniform for me right now, and make-up is definitely NOT happening, unless I am on a Zoom call.”

Q: There is a new part of my routine that has emerged since all of this started….

A: “Once I am done working out, I sit on my front porch and try to just breathe for a minute. The mornings are quiet, and the weather’s been beautiful…It’s a chance to try and still my mind and thoughts.   Every day, however, feels exactly the same. The same potential is there for it to be a great day, but the potential isn’t really there…not now anyway.  And I find it ironic – in the quiet of the morning, you can’t feel the fear, and the chaos and the deaths. The sun keeps shining, and there’s another day upon us, another day full of potential. Yet how can that be?”

Q: What is your mindset about how to use your time at home? (Hustle harder with newfound time, be still and soak up the gift of time, dive into unexplored creative pursuits?)

A: “What a great question. I have many days tried to think about what I should be learning from this time, or what other things I should accomplish with this extra time.  Hug my kids more? Definitely.  Clean my closet out and donate my clothes?  Done. Read that book that’s on my nightstand? Not yet .   Beyond that, I’m also kind of exhausted most days and I feel like I am doing ok, just sticking to those few things. That’s a big enough list for any of us right now. 

We have, though, started doing puzzles and formalizing movie and game nights as a family, and I am proud of how my family has come together to connect and just talk.  My kids have inspired me more than anyone else. They are young adults with their own opinions, and they too are having to adjust, yet they have been concerned for me and tried to be extra helpful right now; I have truly never been more proud of them. 

Additionally, I have made closer connections with those in my neighbourhood.  We have shopped for each other, had social hour sitting in our driveways and watched people up and down our streets come out to say hello and be seen.  I believe profoundly right now, that “being seen” is one of the most powerful things you can do for someone else right now.”

Q: Personally how are you managing your mind and well being for your family?

A: “Walks, and workouts.  Everyone in my family is working out more, and walking together when we can. “

Q: Despite all the negatives and the brutality of the virus are there positives you feel are coming out of this  – a silver lining perhaps?

A: “The silver lining is the time with my family, and not taking things for granted. I believe we will forever be changed for going through this, and I believe that in some crazy way, that is the lesson that we are supposed to take away.  “Be different for getting through this, slow down after this and make the most of everything you have.  You have it good”.

How to boost your immune system and keep it fighting fit, by Ayesha Muttucumaru

Staying healthy has never been more of a concern than it is right now. We’re all (hopefully) staying socially alert and following the government guidelines to protect the vulnerable. However, what more can we do to improve our health both now and in a post-lockdown future when the stresses of modern life threaten to deplete our defences?

A multi-pronged approach is needed, from exercise to de-stressing techniques and gut health-boosting foods, to support our immune system and give us the best chance of not getting run down and catching illnesses.

Here are our expert tips.

1. Keep moving

During lockdown it may have been tempting to just sit on the sofa and binge box sets. Don’t get us wrong, sometimes that’s just what’s needed, however, your body’s ability to fight off illness might suffer as a result. Making movement a daily priority plays a vital role in keeping our defences strong. What’s more, it also encourages us to get into a routine which experts agree can help boost mental health, should you still be self-isolating.

Regularity is key rather than intensity – even walking can be beneficial, says immunologist and author of Immunity: The Science of Staying Well by Dr Jenna Macciochi.  This is because lymph (the fluid that contains white blood cells) relies on the movement of muscles to move around the body. White blood cells have an array of tasks, including a ‘surveillance function’ to detect anything harmful and help the body to repair itself post illness.

Doing exercises that maintain muscle mass is also important as it helps support the thymus gland, the organ responsible for releasing an important type of lymphocyte called T-cells. However, because muscle mass starts to decrease as early as in our 20s, immunity declines also. “Keeping muscles moving and looking after our muscle mass keeps the gland young,” says Dr Macciochi. So, as well as cardio, look to incorporate some kind of resistance training into your weekly regime too.

If you’re unable to get to the gym still, there’s an impressive selection of home workouts on YouTube to choose from – check out Popsugar Fitness for boxing, The Body Coach TV for HIIT, Yoga with Adriene for a workout for body and mind and The Fitness Marshall whose dance workouts are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

boost your immune system with vitamin d3 supplement
Nutri Advanced Vitamin D3 drops
2. Avoid overtraining

Be wary of over-exercising though, Dr Macciochi warns. Combined with a full-on workload, commuting and the demands of a busy job, it can lead to an increase in levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has an immunosuppressant effect. Overdoing HIIT workouts without allowing for adequate recovery is a situation that Dr Macciochi often sees with her patients.

The optimal amount of recovery time differs from person to person and depends on a number of factors such as age, sleep, fitness levels and how stressed you are generally. So it’s important to tune into your body, start slow if you’re new or returning to exercise and seek to vary your modes of daily movement – a mixture of high and low intensity exercise that balances regularity with recovery is the ideal scenario.

3. Protect against chronic stress

There’s a reason for why when we’re burning the candle at both ends and we’re more susceptible to catching an infection. It comes back to how stress elevates levels of cortisol which, if constantly raised, can cause the body to be in a state of chronic stress and lead to constant suppression of the immune system.

In addition to exercise, incorporating a meditation practice into your day and trying breathing techniques are effective ways of better managing stress levels in our experience. Download the Calm app for a range of guided meditations, relaxation playlists and nature sounds to help bring a moment of peace into your day.

That being said though, a cultural change is needed if we’re to see a long-term difference to stress levels on a global scale. “We need to cultivate work environments where we make it okay not to be working 100 per cent of the time,” Dr Macciochi says. “Work days are no longer 9 to 5 – emails are easier than ever to access on our phones. Work can be 24/7 if we let it.” Trying to set strict boundaries between work and life is a good starting point and recalibrating your phone settings to reduce the inundation of news and coronavirus updates you’re receiving. If that means switching off your WIFI, muting your email and Twitter alerts or leaving your phone in another room, find what works for you to make your relationship with tech a healthier one.

4. Prioritise sleep

We’re all aware of the short-term effects of a bad night’s sleep – a lack of focus, tiredness, being more irritable than usual – and getting enough shut-eye has been a problem for many during COVID-19. However long-term, it could have far-reaching effects on our mental and physical health. In fact, Dr Macciochi tells us that a lack of sleep can lower our immune system by a staggering 60 per cent. “Sleep is fortifying for the immune system which has evolved with us being active in the daytime and being inactive at night,” she says. “At night, sleep supports the immune system in fighting infection, and in helping the body heal and repair.”

The NHS in the UK states that most adults need between six and nine hours sleep per night however, as well as focussing on the quantity of sleep that you’re having, it’s also important to focus on the quality. Dr Macciochi explains that while there hasn’t been a lot of research in this area, what we do know is that we need both REM and non-REM sleep. REM sleep is the deeper type of sleep, believed to benefit memory, mood and learning.

In order to boost your REM sleep, Dr Macciochi advises implementing a daily wind down routine that supports the body’s production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, and reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. “If you’re watching too many things that are stimulating or exposing yourself to blue light too close to when you’re going to go to sleep, these will keep you awake and supress melatonin levels. Strenuous exercise in the evening can inhibit this too.”

A. Vogel Echinaforce Drops boost your immune system
A. Vogel Echinaforce Drops
5. Go gently with jet lag

Whilst we may not be travelling right now, this is something to consider for when we do start again. If your slumber stumbling block is jet lag, unfortunately overcoming it will be even trickier. This is because, as Dr Macciochi points out, our biology wasn’t designed to travel through multiple time zones in such a short space of time.

Jet lag can wreak havoc with our circadian rhythm (the internal clock that controls our sleep/wake cycle), affecting the quality of our sleep and making us more prone to infection. Unfortunately, there’s no fast fix for recalibrating it. “You cannot reset your circadian rhythm but only reset it gradually, estimated to be one hour per day based on exposure to light,” explains Dr Macciochi. She advises easing yourself into your new time zone gradually and not depriving yourself of sleep if you need it, getting lots of natural light exposure during the daytime and limiting coffee close to your new bedtime. “Blue light blocking glasses may help with falling asleep at night,” she adds.

6. Get Fresh

Aim for between five and eight servings a day. Diversity is key.

Registered nutritionist Daniel O’Shaughnessy highlights the following as being particularly health-boosting:

Garlic, which contains a sulphur-containing compound called allicin that helps support the immune system.

Red bell peppers and citrus fruits due to their vitamin C content. This helps increase numbers of infection-fighting white blood cells.

Turmeric as its active ingredient is curcumin, a well-researched immune-supportive food.

Ginger has an anti-inflammatory effect due to compounds called gingerols, shogaols and paradols.

Green tea as it contains EGCG, a powerful antioxidant.

Shellfish which is rich in zinc to support immune cells.

Shitake mushrooms due to their beta glucan content which helps immune function.

Valuable food for thought, but be careful not to get obsessed with healthy eating. “Pleasure from food is also important – if you’re abroad and want to enjoy yourself and sample some of the local cuisine, do it,” says Dr Macciochi.

7. Go with your gut

The microbiome in our gut is one of the biggest educators of our immune system. What most people don’t know though is that much of it is shaped in early life – factors such as where and when we were born, whether we were breastfed and what we were exposed to as a child play key roles. As a result of this, our microbiome is actually quite fixed. That being said though, Dr Macciochi tells us that it can still be influenced to a degree by diet later on in life.

To help your gut flora flourish, she recommends eating a diverse diet rich in plant-focussed and fibre-rich foods in order to cultivate a diverse microbiome. ‘Good’ microbes convert fibre into health-promoting substances, which in turn help reduce infection and inflammation. She advises eating lots of fruit (for example, berries), vegetables, beans, legumes, herbs and spices. However, when adding these types of foods to your diet , take it slowly and don’t suddenly incorporate large quantities at once. If you’re not used it, it might prove a little too much for the body to handle.

Is it worth taking a probiotic supplement too? In Dr Macciochi’s opinion, it could help those with digestive complaints and for avoiding ‘traveller’s diarrhoea’ when an abundance of different foods (and the different strains of bacteria that can be found on them) can disturb the status quo of your microbiome. However otherwise, it’s best to go with a food first approach. “As we don’t know what strains of bacteria people have in their guts, we can’t be sure of which probiotics to recommend,” she says. “Rather than focussing on specific strains, it’s more important to consider how the different bacteria work together collectively.” This is best supported through eating a range of different foods.

The Science of Staying Well by immunologist Dr Jenna Macciocchi
The Science of Staying Well by immunologist Dr Jenna Macciocchi
8. Be smart with supplements

That being said, there are certain supplements that are worth taking to support your immune system in times of stress and illness. “Vitamin D should be supplemented for those who live in the UK,” says Dr Macciochi. This is especially important between October and early March as we don’t get enough from sunlight. Furthermore, it’s difficult to get from just food too.

Look for a supplement that contains vitamin D3 as it’s a form that our bodies are able to process better than others. Try: Daniel recommends Nutri Vitamin D3 Drops, $14.22. 

A vitamin C supplement is also worth taking. Daniel recommends taking 500mg to 1000mg per day which should be enough for reducing cold severity and duration. Try: Cytoplan Vitamin C + Bioflavanoids, $17.93

Selenium can help support the immune system, but as it can be hard to get through diet, is also worth seeking out in supplements. Zinc can be useful when fighting infection and has been shown to reduce duration (although more evidence is needed in this area). Try: Cytoplan Immunovite Beta 1-3 1-6 Glucan, $17.31, which contains vitamin C, selenium and zinc. 

Echinacea could also be worth supplementing as it can help increase white blood cells, says Daniel. Try: A. Vogel Echinacea Drops, $5.56. 

He also highlights elderberry as it contains antiviral properties and can help upper respiratory infections.  

Try: Invivo ImmunoBerry Liquid Food Supplement, $64.23, which contains elderberry and shitake among other compounds that help support immune function. 

9. Stay hydrated

Drink lots of water to keep cells hydrated and your lymph flowing, giving you the best chance of fighting infections and more able to flush toxins, germs and harmful substances from your body.

Dr Macciochi also points out that staying hydrated helps keep the mucus in our nose and respiratory tract and saliva in our mouth at the proper consistency. Think of these moisture barriers as one of the first lines of defence against microbes. For instance, saliva contains elements that restrict microbial growth, while mucus helps provide a physical wall against pathogens. The NHS recommends drinking between six to eight glasses (around 1.2 litres) of water or other fluids a day however, if you’re travelling to hotter climates, you might need more.

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