The growing trend of sobriety in the culinary industry

by Laura McWilliams

There is no question that alcohol plays a huge role in the hospitality industry. No corner of life in restaurants is untouched by the party lifestyle, the self medication, the stress, the addiction. The lifestyle has been glamorized by participants and observers alike, creating a social norm that encourages excess.

The struggle with alcohol in our industry is largely rooted in the job itself. We sell alcohol, we pair food with it, cook with it, we make 30 percent of our profits from it. We work crazy schedules that lend themselves to drinking as a means of socializing.

But more and more people are deciding change that. Restaurants are setting up resources for people struggling, promoting healthier habits and encouraging people to take care of themselves. It is an inspiring time right now in restaurant culture. We are in the midst of a tidal wave of positive changes. More and more, we see stories that build awareness of the effect alcohol and addiction have on our lives and on our restaurants.

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For a long time, getting sober while continuing to work in the industry was not a real option for most people. Going back to bartending, or working with a partying crew, is the last thing you are supposed to do after leaving treatment or when trying to maintain sobriety. For many restaurant workers, however, the reality is that they have nowhere else to go. Finding a place in this industry that has support systems recovering individuals is becoming more common, allowing real restaurant recovery to become a reality.

Mickey Bakst, general manager of the Charleston Grill and co-founder of Ben’s Friends, a group for those grappling with substance abuse and addiction, has hope for the future of the industry. “What I’m hopeful about is that entrepreneurs around the country are starting to do things differently. When I was a kid, everybody sat around doing their paperwork, drinking,” he says. “Now, restaurateurs are stopping that. Now, restaurateurs are talking about the alcoholism. Now, restaurateurs are starting to, around the country, say to employees, ‘How can I help you?’ As opposed to, ‘If you’re drunk one more time, you’re out of here.'”

Mickey Bakst at ACF ChefConnect: Minneapolis
Mickey Bakst at ACF ChefConnect: Minneapolis • photo by Heather Blackwell

“I’m incredibly hopeful that there’s an awareness building in the industry that this is a problem that we all share, and that together we have to look at it, and doing things like being willing to talk about it, being willing to offer help to our employees, by cutting out the drinking on the job,” Bakst continues. “Listen, alcoholism is not going to go away, we’re never going to cure it, it’s always going to be there. But I am hopeful that the number of people affected by it is going to start dwindling because of the awareness that’s happening.”

Bakst and Steve Palmer, managing partner at Indigo Road Hospitality Group, started the organization together in honor of Palmer’s friend Ben Murray. “It’s an unfortunate reality that the hospitality industry is rife with alcohol and substance abuse issues, and we see people struggle day in and day out,” Palmer says. “As a sober individual since 2001, I’ve been lucky to find a community of people that support my decision to choose sobriety, and that’s led to a life of happiness and joy that I wouldn’t trade for the world.”

Bakst himself was addicted for a long time. After a brush with death, he got clean and started on the path to where he is today. “Back in ’82, I was the black sheep. Nobody was sober in our industry. Nobody was sober. It was so rare. Everybody drank,” he says. “Now, there’s meetings all over with just restaurant people and Ben’s Friends. There’s mocktail competitions, there’s sober parties. It’s incredible.”

His enthusiasm is shared by many across the industry. Ben’s Friends is a  group made for chefs and kitchen workers in the style of Alcoholics Anonymous, but without much of the religious aspect. And it’s spreading like wildfire. The program is in seven cities and is in talks to expand to seven more.

“It’s been eye opening to lend a helping hand and offer hope to fellow restaurant workers, and we’ve seen the group grow from a single weekly meeting in Charleston to chapters in Atlanta, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Raleigh, Portland and beyond,” says Palmer. “My goal is to bring this level of support to anyone in the industry who’s seeking it out, and we hope to expand our reach even further in the coming years.”

Ben’s Friends is just the beginning. In the last few years more and more high profile chefs have announced their sobriety, their intention to lead healthier lives, and their desire to help those around them. From Sean Brock to Gabe Rucker to David McMillan, chefs are paving the way for others to give sobriety a try.

As more and more chefs, managers, and owners realize the impact that alcohol and addiction can have on their lives, their businesses and their teams, they are beginning to adopt new practices such as flexible scheduling for support group meetings, employee assistance funds, employer sponsored activities that promote good health, and creating a culture inside the restaurant that doesn’t promote the partying image.

A changing industry — one that is more supportive of healthy lifestyles and more accepting of people’s different needs — is becoming a reality. With resources and role models, the culture of the industry is evolving. No longer is the angry, red faced, pan-throwing chef the spokesperson for the BOH. Changing the culture takes time, and it takes everyone being involved, offering to listen, offering to help, modelling healthy behaviors for staff and family.

In these ways we will start to heal, one restaurant at a time.

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