hospitality

A Question for the Hospitality Industry: “Are You Okay?”

By Steve Palmer

According to a 2015 study, food service and hospitality industry employees had the highest rate of substance abuse of any profession. I’ve experienced this firsthand as a member of the industry and a recovering addict. My purpose in life shifted in 2016 when I watched addiction take the life of a close friend.

Twenty years ago, I met a chef named Ben Murray when we were opening a new restaurant. He was a happy guy who enjoyed telling jokes. We lost touch and reunited years later opening another restaurant. When we reconnected, he told me he had cleaned up his act. I didn’t know what he meant and didn’t ask questions. For the next six weeks, we endured exhausting, 16 hour-days, and I never saw him take a drink. Then, one day, he didn’t show up. I got worried when he wouldn’t answer my calls, so I went to his hotel room. He didn’t answer my knocks at the door. Ben had committed suicide.

In the aftermath of Ben’s death, I continued to reflect on how and why my sober, seemingly happy friend took his life. It occurred to me that in our industry, one plagued by alcoholism and drug addiction, we never stop to ask, “Are you okay?” Why? Why are we allowing food and beverage employees to struggle in silence?

In hospitality, we get a front-row seat to a beautiful theatre of food, wine, and ambiance. But in this same industry, we end our shifts and drink ourselves to unconsciousness and do drugs, overdosing in record numbers. We have fellow teammates and friends suffering right in front of us, yet we continue to encourage risky behaviors—from the after-work shift drink to staying out all night to blow off steam. Over the last few years, we’ve lost so many talented people to overdose and suicide related to substance abuse. We need to care about our people and have conversations that might be uncomfortable. This subculture of hospitality industry professionals struggling with addiction deserves to be asked, “Are you okay?” 

Following Ben’s death, my friend and fellow restaurateur Mickey Bakst and I chose to honor him by creating a safe place for people struggling with substance abuse. Ben’s Friends is a support group with the intent to serve as a pathway to hope, fellowship and sobriety—something that can seem impossible in our industry. We model acceptance and gratitude, and the only thing you need to bring through the door is a desire to stop drinking or using. By coming together, starting a dialogue and acknowledging that substance abuse cannot be overcome in isolation or by willpower alone, we hope to write a new chapter in the lives of our country’s talented and dedicated food and beverage professionals and prevent tragedies like that of Ben from becoming all too common. The organization now includes 10 chapters across the country – if you’re in need, please join us.

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