Addiction in the Restaurant Industry and How We Can Build a Culture of Support [Podcast]

By: Dahlia Snaiderman

12 Minute Read

May 01, 2019

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Content warning: This article contains discussions about addiction, substance use disorders, alcoholism, and drug use.

While substance use disorders affect people in every line of work, they are particularly prevalent in the restaurant world.

In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that the food service and hospitality industry had the highest rate of substance use disorders of all employment sectors, with nearly 12% of restaurant workers engaging in heavy alcohol use – defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in under two hours for five consecutive days – and 19.1% having used illicit drugs in the past month. The impact of the nationwide opioid crisis has also been felt in kitchens and dining rooms across the country.

It’s worth noting these numbers are self-reported, so it’s likely that the numbers are much higher. 

To put this in perspective, if you have a staff of 20 people, it's likely that at least two of your employees are being affected by these issues right now.

On our latest episode of The Garnish, we spoke with three individuals who each have different experiences with addiction in the restaurant industry. During these conversations, we learned about the barriers and stigmatization restaurant workers face when trying to get treatment and live a sober lifestyle. 

We also got some perspectives on what restaurant owners and managers can do to create safer environments and help employees struggling with addiction.

Alcohol is Everywhere, but It’s Not for Everyone

The restaurant industry poses a unique challenge for people trying to get sober or cut back on drinking. Alcohol is everywhere — it’s a big part of the workplace — and the restaurant industry is one of the only ones where drinking on the job probably won’t get you instantly fired. The level of stress that restaurant workers experience daily is also conducive to drinking. 

Brandi Estrada runs the NGO Bar Harm, and she’s worked in restaurants and bars for the last 17 years. She says that our industry needs to re-evaluate what is considered okay when it comes to drinking. “A lot of us drink too much, and there’s a very high rate of substance use, so it’s kind of normalized,” says Estrada. “It makes it hard for people because they have a difficult time recognizing when it becomes a problem.”

Shaaren Pine, of the NGO Restaurant Recovery, agrees. “It’s very seductive, and we can be kind of counter-culture-y,” says Pine. “When you're working a shift and you get your ass kicked, there is nothing that bonds people together [more]. You’re working really hard in a restaurant, and then you're so pumped, and the habit is ‘let's go relax and party. It's just very easy to kind of get into that.”

Upon realizing that the restaurant she was managing was enabling patterns of unhealthy alcohol use,  she decided they needed to make a big change: they got rid of shift drinks, and stopped allowing people to work while drunk. “It was really hard. We lost a lot of people, and got accused by many people that were going to ruin our restaurant,” said Pine, “but not surprisingly, we ended up with a much stronger team when we found people who wanted to work for us, for us, and not just because they could get shift drinks.”

In 2016, 39-year-old Carrie Neal Walden was injured while waiting tables and was sent to the hospital. She was immediately transferred to a liver doctor, who gave her an ultimatum: stop drinking or you won’t make it to 40. She was on the brink of cirrhosis after seven years of heavy drinking while working as a server in various restaurants. 

Today, she’s 42, and a chapter leader and media coordinator for Ben’s Friends, an organization that helps restaurant workers get sober and stay sober. 

She says that the culture in restaurants needs an overhaul. “I think it's really important, the example that the owners and managers lead,” said Walden. “Are they doing shots with customers? I've worked at a place where that was encouraged, for all the staff… some of us can't handle that.” 

Walden is often upset and surprised by the opinions that the general public still hold about alcoholism. “It doesn’t discriminate. It's not the brown paper bag person. It's the carpool mom who is drunk when she picks up her kids or it's the high-powered lawyer with names on buildings, just like it's somebody who spent time in jail.” 

Estrada, Pine, and Walden all say that one thing that everyone can do to improve our industry’s culture is talk more openly about this issue because stigmatization is still a huge barrier to restaurant people getting help. “Every time there's a piece about someone very famous, whether it's Andrew Zimmern, or any of the other folks that are willing to speak out from a high level, it trickles down,” says Walden.  

Earlier this year, Bon Appetit ran an essay written by David MacMillan, owner and executive chef of Joe Beef in Montreal, Canada about how his bacchanalian restaurant has changed since he decided to get sober. 

“As I started taking care of myself, the staff started mimicking me. All of these young cooks who came to cook at Joe Beef, who look up to me and Fred [Morin], saw, well, David’s not drinking anymore, and he’s going to bed early, and he’s talking about what’s cool on Netflix. Then my staff was going to bed early and watching Netflix. My comptroller said staff drinking is down like crazy. We have the numbers. We used to give out 30 or 40 glasses of wine at the end of the shift, and it’s down to 10, and half the staff is drinking kombucha.”

The Opioid Crisis in Restaurants

Brandi Estrada started training restaurant staff about substance abuse and how to administer Narcan (Naloxone) – the overdose-reversal nasal spray– after a regular guest fatally overdosed in her restaurant. 

The demand for this kind of training in restaurants has been overwhelming. Estrada said every owner or manager she spoke to about this had had an experience like hers, whether it was with a staff member, a guest, or someone hanging around near the restaurant. “What we see a lot of, unfortunately, in restaurants and bars now is what I would call an accidental overdose. There's been a spike in cocaine use in the last couple of years, and so much of cocaine has fentanyl or Carfentanil in it,” says Estrada. “I don't know too many people whose lives haven't been touched by the opioid crisis.”

After every training that Estrada gives, she says that people approach her to ask more questions or confide in her about a personal situation. Because of this, her training has grown to cover more expansive and in-depth information about substance abuse. “Someone always stays back to ask questions… How do you do an intervention? How do you help someone without being accusatory? What’s the best way to get someone help?”

Estrada hopes to make the difficult process of helping a loved one or employee get help a little bit easier. “I tell everyone: If someone does come to you and they want to get help, that's a huge display of respect to that person. But also it tends to be a pretty short window when people want to get help.” That’s why Estrada distributes resource lists to as many people as possible, so they can sit down with someone who needs help right away and make some phone calls together. 

“I tell everyone: If someone does come to you and they want to get help, that's a huge display of respect to that person. But also it tends to be a pretty short window when people want to get help.”

Brandi Estrada

Social Worker and Founder of Bar Harm

The Industry’s Insurance Problem

Most restaurants don’t provide health insurance to their employees because it’s simply too expensive - Estrada says that in the midwest, it can cost $18,000 a year for a family, and most restaurants just can’t swing it. According to the Economic Policy Institute, only 14% of restaurant workers receive benefits. 

Back in 2011, Pine was watching her now ex-husband going through treatment for his drinking for the first time. “We had health insurance but this was before the Affordable Care Act, so at that time, standard treatment was just a couple of weeks. We didn't even get 28 days because our insurance didn't cover it, so he did three weeks of inpatient [treatment], and then in order to save the rest of our insurance, he had to come home and do outpatient. Now, standard [treatment] is 30 to 90 days. So at that time, we were just setting up folks for failure.”

Even today, a lack of health insurance is a huge reason why restaurant people don’t get treatment. “[As an industry,] we're totally under-insured. The affordable care act doesn't require businesses with fewer than 50 employees to [provide] health insurance. And nine out of 10 restaurants have fewer than 50 employees,” she said. 

What Can Restaurant Management do to Help?

Estrada managed a high-volume restaurant for a year and a half. “Even as a manager who cared and wanted to help, you're so limited on time and money that, unfortunately, a lot of times it leads to that really high turnover rate that we see – because you can't address those issues if you don't have health insurance and you don't know where to go in the community.”

Our guests recommended seven ways a restaurant manager or owner can start a conversation and support network for their staff members struggling with substance use disorders and addiction. 

Set up a staff training with Bar Harm, or a local organization like it.

By hiring someone to come in and teach your employees about substance abuse, it shows your employees you care about their health and their lives outside the restaurant and that you’re willing to do what it takes to keep them safe. Most importantly, it starts a dialogue in your restaurant so people can feel safer coming to management for help or suggesting ways to create a safer environment. 

Get rid of shift drinks.

Shift drinks are bad for your bottom line – one drink per employee per shift really adds up – and they encourage your staff to deal with exhaustion or adrenaline with alcohol. Provide good staff meals instead, with sodas or water. 

Get involved with a sobriety nonprofit. 

You can host an AA or NA meeting at your restaurant during off hours, join a phone or email sober support chain, or even consider partnering with a specific sobriety nonprofit and sharing a percentage of your profits with them for a day. It’s a smart idea to get the word out to your greater community both to draw in customers who may want to support the cause, as well as to promote your restaurant as a safe space for others in your community struggling with substance abuse or addiction. 

Post a flyer next to your staff schedule in the back.

This is one of the easiest and most powerful things you can do as a manager – even if you’re strapped on money and time, you can print off a flyer like this one and post it where your employees will see it every day. Look to any of the organizations linked below to find flyers and/or contact information for meeting leaders. This also opens up the dialogue with your staff and increases the chances they’ll know where to go if they need help. 

Provide health insurance if you can.

Consider providing health insurance or contributing to an insurance related fund for each of your front and back of house employees after they’ve been working with you for 6 months or a year. As previously stated, under the Affordable Care Act, businesses with 50 or more employees are required to offer health coverage for their employees. If you’re unsure of a provider to choose, consider a health care marketplace like Stride Health, where employees can pick their own policy from a vast network of approved providers. 

Set a positive example.

It may be easier said than done, but if you find that members of your front of house or back of house management are drinking in excess after their shift has ended,  or during a shift, encourage them to reflect on their own behavior and see how your staff may be mirroring it. Same goes for you, the owner or operator. 

Provide incentives for staff to make healthy choices.

A stipend for a gym membership is an easy and relatively cheap way to encourage a healthy lifestyle among your staff. Gym memberships are also often covered by insurance. 

Additional Resources and Reading

Getting help for yourself or someone you love who is struggling with substance use or addiction is never an easy process. We’ve compiled some restaurant-specific and general resources and articles about sobriety in our industry to help you know where to start. 

For restaurant people:

Ben’s Friends

Bar Harm

Restaurant Recovery

Chefs with Issues


For anyone who needs help:

SOS Sobriety

SMART Recovery

Women for Sobriety

Narcotics Anonymous

Alcoholics Anonymous

Life Ring

Moderation Management

Further Reading: 

My Restaurant Was the Greatest Show of Excess You’d Ever Seen, and It Almost Killed Me

Chef Andrew Zimmern On His Addiction: "I Was A Dangerous Mess"

Restaurateur believes Narcan belongs in Cincinnati restaurants

Portland 'Top Chef' Gregory Gourdet's tough journey to addiction recovery

Toast Restaurant Blog

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