Toronto restaurateur Jeffrey Markus is compelled to pursue entrepreneurship despite the toll it has taken on his mental health.
Markus started at his father’s international casino business in his teens. The pressure he placed on himself to succeed brought about unhealthy coping mechanisms that only exacerbated the depression he grappled with on a daily basis – challenges that would continue over the course of his various careers. His story is not atypical for entrepreneurs, but his willingness to share it openly is unusual.
Now, having operated one of Toronto’s most profitable restaurants for the past 15 years, Markus reflects on his non-linear and often painful path to success. After the constant travel and long hours put a strain on his first marriage, he left the casino industry and became a bar manager, eventually managing six downtown Toronto establishments.
Encouraged by this success, he started his own venture, which failed. Like many entrepreneurs, Markus took professional failure personally. He felt like his life had lost meaning – his entrepreneurial unravelling saw his mental health take a turn for the worse.
Markus’s unilateral determination, however, meant that he never gave up. Ironically, the same trait that made many of his earlier relationships suffer meant that he got help and started over – this time, with a more favourable outcome, even though Markus and his business partner eventually parted ways.
Jeffrey Markus’s third business is his most successful; Daddyo’s Pasta & Salad has become an institution.
Markus sees his journey as emblematic of the typical entrepreneurial experience: with the clarity of hindsight, he would do some things differently, but he has no regrets.
How did you internalise the failure of your first business?
It hit me harder than anything I’d previously experienced, and the aftermath was a nightmare. I found myself uncertain of what had happened and what it ultimately meant for me, my identity and my worth. I was lost and didn’t know where to turn next. Consequently, I engaged in destructive behaviour, self-medicated, became an addict and, eventually, ended up in rehab.
However, my determination had not been extinguished completely – instead, it pushed me towards my next opportunity. I started as a waiter and worked my way up, eventually opening a restaurant with a business partner. To me, this represented a tremendous comeback, and again, I put everything I had into the business. My partner and I decided to expand into more locations, but unfortunately, we were unsuccessful, which ultimately led to the end of our professional relationship. We divided up our profit and went our separate ways.
Do you consider that experience a successful setback?
Yes, mainly because, afterwards, I was in a much better place psychologically than I was after the closure of my bar. A chance encounter with a former employee eventually led to us opening a restaurant together – a second comeback for me.
Daddyo’s has given us a solid foundation of success, but like always, I immerse myself totally into the operation. I’m involved with nearly every aspect, from buying stock to working the cash register – I’m even happy to wash dishes if that’s what’s required. So, while I honestly love running the restaurant, it still takes its toll on my relationships and mental health.
Why do you keep doing it, then?
I think it’s in my DNA. My father and I are similar. I don’t ever recall him working for an employer – from what I remember, he was always an entrepreneur. He taught me that you can have anything you want if you work hard enough for it; you just need unwavering determination and motivation.
I sometimes half-jokingly tell my friends that I might sell the restaurant in the next two years and go into retirement or find a position at a company with regular hours. They respond with laughter; they know that I have no choice but to be an entrepreneur.
My father and I are similar. I don’t ever recall him working for an employer – from what I remember, he was always an entrepreneur. He taught me that you can have anything you want if you work hard enough for it; you just need unwavering determination and motivation.
What aspect of entrepreneurship is most burdensome when it comes to mental health?
For entrepreneurs, personal identity coincides with success and failure. Entrepreneurs have an inner drive to succeed – one that creates internal pressure, which can manifest itself in ways that are psychologically challenging. I have suffered from depression since the beginning of my career, but fortunately, it has diminished over the last few years.
That said, the pressure I put on myself to succeed is not always a negative thing. It ensures that I get out of bed and go to work every morning even if I’m sick because I know people depend on me. In some ways, it’s helped with my depression.
In terms of mental health, are some industries more challenging than others?
It’s never straightforward, but depression can be even more complicated when customer service comes into play. You’re forced to appear positive at all times, despite feeling the complete opposite inside. I’ve seen people self-medicate to mitigate this dissonance.
Pressure is problematic regardless of industry. We normalise our psychological struggles as part of success, accepting that more money means more pressure. However, increased pressure leads to conflict in marriages, families and other relationships, which can manifest into a reliance on alcohol and other substances as a coping mechanism. The depression itself is not the only problem – there are also the habits that develop as a result.
We normalise our psychological struggles as part of success, accepting that more money means more pressure. However, increased pressure leads to conflict in marriages, families and other relationships, which can manifest into a reliance on alcohol and other substances as a coping mechanism.
Does this challenging environment make entrepreneurs more resilient?
Certainly – I’ve suffered to get where I am today; I consider myself to be a survivor. I’m proud of my ability to overcome, and I know that the mental health challenges I’ve faced down have made me stronger.
However, entrepreneurship takes its toll regardless. My marriage couldn’t survive the rigours of entrepreneurship, but after it ended, I grew as a person. Now, years later, I coexist with my wife and children in a healthy, happy relationship.
Turmoil and uncertainty can lead to personal growth, although that doesn’t mean there aren’t things I wish had worked out differently. For example, I wish my eldest son didn’t have to see his parents fight so much during the first ten years of his life.
How important is it for entrepreneurs to talk about mental health?
Being open and honest about mental health is critical, but for entrepreneurs who are independent by nature, reaching out is a challenge. Even if there is help available, chronically busy business persons find every excuse not to seek it.
Moreover, many entrepreneurs don’t even realise they need help; they treat the symptoms rather than the cause. When it comes to alcohol and other substance abuse, it’s often achingly clear where and how to find help; the main obstacle lies in the ability to recognise the problem and admit it to others.
We can all do a much better job of spreading awareness, not only with regards to the assistance available for those struggling with their mental health but also realising that entrepreneurs – despite working for themselves – are never alone.