Addiction in the Restaurant Industry

As published in The Montague Reporter, April 9, 2015

As a somewhat sheltered teenager, I got my first consistent job as a Saturday morning dishwasher and janitor in one of the only restaurants in town. In that restaurant, and the dozen restaurants and over twenty-five kitchens I’ve worked in since, I’ve seen and been a part of some things which I am not proud of.

Drinking, smoking and drugging while on the job was something which I started in that first restaurant, and continued until I checked into Father Martin’s Ashley rehab facility in January of 2013.

It was there that I learned just how much of an impact the environment of these restaurants, and the people within them, had on my addiction. It was the staff at Father Martin’s Ashley who first told me to quit my job, and find another way of supporting my family of five. Against their advice, I have remained and thrived as a sober restaurateur—one day at a time—for over two years.

Over the past sixteen years, I have worked with some incredible people. Some of whom have addiction problems, and some of whom do not. I have worked closely with hundreds of cooks, and probably a thousand servers, and can’t imagine ever having worked in another field. The work I do is one which requires toughness and mental fortitude; without having survived in it so long, I might lack those necessary ingredients of sobriety.

This is not my story. It is a story which generalizes the exponentially varied culture of restaurants, and was written in an effort to begin a conversation about a problem that often goes unnoticed.

As someone who worked his way up from the bottom to some relative success and someone who nearly lost it all, only to return as a better and more qualified chef and leader, understand that I love my job and all of the people with whom I have ever worked, and can’t for one moment imagine my life without it or them.—E.D.

The Enticement

The restaurant industry is a 500-billion dollar enterprise in the United States. Restaurant jobs are available in every state, every community—always.

The restaurant offers a fun and exciting environment, where a diverse group of teenagers, college students, and seasoned professionals work side by side, day in and day out. To the teenager, any job will suffice, and to the college student, restaurants offer part-time, flexible schedules to accommodate their busy lives.

For the addict, the draw of the restaurant is the regular cash, and the fact that so many of the employees are engaged in a drug-and alcohol-fueled social life.

Steve Kelly, former owner and chef of The Big Kitchen Cafe in Northfield, MA, and recovering alcoholic and worker at a local half-way house, said, “The reason I chose the restaurant was I realized that most of the people I met that worked in restaurants were into drugs and alcohol, so I figured that would be a good place to work.”

The Problem

To the professional, restaurant work is more than a job, it is a way of life. Because, in part, of the long and unusual hours, restaurateurs’ social lives revolve around their jobs and involve heavy consumption of alcohol and the use of illicit drugs.

There have been numerous books and stories written about the behind-the-scenes life of the industry. Most notably, Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential, describes the life of the restaurant worker as someone who works all day and parties all night.

This is the same Anthony Bourdain who brought big-time cameras to small-time Greenfield and Turners Falls. The show, Parts Unknown, which aired last fall on CNN, exposed the rural heroin epidemic now being addressed by the Opioid Task Force in Massachusetts. Bourdain used Greenfield to exemplify the kid-next-door drug problem which reaches across the United States.

Most who read this will have two things in common: they will know someone who is a restaurateur, and they will know someone who has a problem with alcohol or drugs. Restaurants are a haven for such derelicts, for sordid and otherwise unemployable folks.

The local owner of a popular restaurant, Mr. X, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of this article, explained, “I just think it’s because of the easy employment. Usually there’s always a job in the restaurant business, and an addict and person like that is not reliable. They tend to lose their jobs faster than most.”

Mr. X considers the problem of restaurants having a high turnover, and restaurateurs being more likely than those in most other professions to abuse drugs and alcohol, as a sort of chicken or the egg paradox. “That’s why there’s turnover in the restaurant. Does the restaurant turn them that way? No, a lot of them come that way because of the easy ability to get a job in the restaurant business.”

Not always condoning the lifestyle, but seldom forbidding it. An old cliché in the industry is, “What they do on their time is none of my business.” But it is. It’s everyone’s business.

The Addiction

Are addicts drawn to the restaurant, or is the restaurant the malevolent force behind the addiction?

Alcoholics and addicts come from all walks of life. Lawyers, pilots, engineers and construction workers are all equally vulnerable to this disease. Mr. X asserts, “Do some dishwashers come in and become drug addicts? Yeah, but would they have become a drug addict if they were in the landscaping business?”

Addiction is hereditary and does not discriminate. But the prevalence of drugs and the unlimited opportunities to drink make the restaurant a dangerous place for those who have “addictive personalities.”

In a 2007 study of workplace drug and alcohol abuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, found that 17.4% of food service workers were illicit drug users, which was the most of any profession studied.

The Most Vulnerable

Parents who bring their adolescent teens to fill out their first application for work are wise to steer clear of the local eatery.

The combination of the availability of drugs, the stress of the job itself, the peer pressure from much older and already deranged cooks with a splash of an undeveloped teenage brain will quickly become the perfect cocktail for drug and alcohol abuse later in life.

Mr. X says, “Most of the kids are seventeen when they get here so they’ve already been exposed to it.” But the prevalence of users already established in the restaurant will make access to drugs and alcohol much easier for the teenager.

The camaraderie of a restaurant lends itself to this exposure, where a seventeen-year-old who works hard and shows an ability to follow simple instructions will quickly earn the respect and friendship of the older workers.

Dr. Frances Jensen, of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, said in a January interview with National Public Radio, “The effects of substances are more permanent on the teen brain. They have more deleterious effects and can be more toxic to the teen than the adult.”

This is largely in part to the brain being yet undeveloped, and the brain’s reward center being trained to receive pleasure from narcotic and alcoholic stimuli.

It can be difficult for one to establish the difference of a teenager or young adult who is simply using drugs and alcohol as part of an experimental phase, and one who will grow into a full blown alcoholic or addict. Not until the early twenties is the brain fully developed.

Kelly, who has been sober for many years, says, “A 22 year old kid, they should be drinking. It’s totally normal. Nine out of ten people can do that.”

The Shift Drink

An expectation of the restaurant worker is often a “shift drink.” In fact, for some, it’s one of the only reasons to stay on board.

“Our guys are supposed to have one,” says Mr. X.

One shift drink often turns into more. As the manager’s leave for the evening, and the overnight crews come in to clean, cooks and servers are often left behind drinking. “You know they’re having two or three. People ask me, why don’t you enforce that more? Well, you know what, they’re ten- or eleven-dollar-an-hour employees—it’s kinda figured into their pay. It’s an incentive.”

That incentive is one of the few allowed to part-time, and sometimes under-the-table employees. However, not all restaurants offer a shift drink.

The shift drink is slowly going by the wayside. It’s a tax liability, in the same way a drink “on the house” is. Restaurants in Massachusetts are supposed to pay tax on all alcohol consumed, not just sold. As a cost-control measure, and a means of complying with the tax laws, many restaurants have eliminated the shift drink altogether. Some even forbid employees to remain on premises and purchase alcohol as guests.

Corporate chain restaurants and high-end places are most likely to have policies forbidding employees from drinking while at work.

Undoubtedly, though, the employees of these places often move their party to other restaurants and bars. Local chain restaurants are full of late night guests from competing restaurants, and thus the lifestyle persists.

One certain way to avoid employees having a shift drink is to run a “sober” restaurant. In the case of The Big Kitchen Cafe, this was a fundamental policy from the get go.

The restaurant would allow guests to bring their own alcohol, but the lack of a liquor license absolutely had a negative impact on the success of The Big Kitchen Cafe.

Kelly said, though the license was available at the time, “We didn’t want to—in good conscience—serve alcohol, and the other, more important reason: [if] it’s March and it’s snowing outside I didn’t want to be staring at a bottle of Johnny Walker while no people were in the restaurant. It was a combination of the two things. We couldn’t feel comfortable selling alcohol and being in recovery, and we just wanted to protect our sobriety.”

The Complicated Solution

Dangerous lines of work, where a person could injure himself if working under the influence of drugs and alcohol, test employees regularly. Many jobs require a clean drug test as a condition of employment.

Restaurants, however dangerous they are, seldom drug test employees. Would that be a possible solution to the heavy drug and alcohol problems faced in restaurants?

Mr. X said, “You’d have to drug test, because you can’t just accuse someone of something. You’d have to have some concrete proof. Believe me, I know some of the guys and I know what they’re doing. To see them doing it or catch them doing it, that’s a different story.”

When the two interview subjects of this article were asked why restaurants don’t drug test, they both had a good chuckle. Mr. X said, “Because they probably wouldn’t have any help.”

And Kelly, “If I did a drug and alcohol test on my employees they would have all failed.”

While the restaurant industry might not be ready for conditional drug tests to help create and foster a healthier social scene among their workers, some restaurants have found ways of at least limiting what happens on their premises, by removing the “shift drink,” and writing internal policies helping addicts get treatment rather than terminating them.

Insurance companies and the state legislature could make incentives for implementing conditional drug testing.

There are also management training programs that restaurants could take part in, and help curb their employees’ habits, or at least help them recognize the signs before they head down the dangerous path to addiction.

For the restaurateur who is battling a drug addiction, Kelly advises avoiding the social part of the restaurant. He said that hanging out and drinking soda will only last so long,

“If you go to a barber shop everyday for a month, you’re going to get a haircut.”

Finally, when push comes to shove, for the restaurateur new in recovery, Kelly urges, “You have to be working closely with someone—call it a sponsor or guide—and you have to be willing to walk away. If you’re there, and you find yourself being tempted, then you on-the-spot quit.”

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11 thoughts on “Addiction in the Restaurant Industry

  1. Pingback: Burned Again | The Sober Sous Chef

  2. Interesting I think it’s both genetics and. The environment . But some people are more predisposed to become addicts so I think they are more at risk working in the restaurant industry . Congrats on your sobriety

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Butts in Chairs—Cover Counts, Speedy Service and The Closing-time Guest | The Sober Sous Chef

  4. Excellent article! I, like the other commenters here, didn’t realize what an epidemic this was in the restaurant business, but it makes total sense.

    Congratulations on your sobriety!


  5. Pingback: What’s Killing The Great Chefs? | Im Ho

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