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Leading by Example: Prioritizing Wellness in a Substance-Fueled Restaurant Culture

Ashish Alfred | May 7, 2019

The restaurant industry can be a high-stress environment with crazy hours, intense personalities, and easy access to alcohol and drugs. Work can start at two or three o’clock in the afternoon and go past midnight. From the moment I started working in a kitchen, the conversation often centered around where we would go drinking at the end of the night. I lived this way for years – feeling entitled to do whatever I wanted -- and using the restaurant culture as an excuse. I convinced myself it was normal until I realized I was going to die if I didn’t get help. I was lucky because I was treated for addiction in 2014, launching me into a new life in recovery. I quickly discovered that substance abuse and bad behavior is not an inevitable part of restaurant life and that you can be successful as a sober restaurateur.

I first fell in love with cooking as a teenager, attending International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York, and opening my first restaurant at the age of 25. Let me be clear that working in restaurants didn’t cause my addiction to alcohol and drugs – that started when I was 13 – but it certainly didn’t help. People told me my talents as a chef could take me far, if I got my substance use under control. My moment of truth came as I was running down the street, planning to break into my own restaurant to steal $4,000 to buy heroin. I fell, smashing out four of my teeth. The next day, my mother gave me an ultimatum: Get treatment or she would not see me ever again. I accepted, and she drove me to treatment at Caron the following week. Four-and-a-half years later, I am thriving in recovery.

Once I established a solid foundation in recovery, I was determined to launch my own restaurants. I was empowered to create a healthy workplace – one that promoted wellness and didn’t tolerate substance use. While statistics show restaurant and food service workers are among the professions most likely to drink heavily and abuse drugs, I’m living proof it doesn’t have to be that way.

As a chef, I’ve learned that cooking on a 10- to 14-hour shift is an Olympic event on my body. As such, industry professionals should train for the job just as an elite athlete would. We must take care of ourselves emotionally and physically. No matter how great your restaurant or how talented you are as a chef, if the main after-work activity is getting hammered, you are endorsing unhealthy behavior that can result in destructive consequences for you and your staff. Although we are in the business of showing people a good time, we must avoid the temptation to treat our restaurants as an extended party. As an industry, we must commit to change by nourishing ourselves and each other.

For those in the restaurant and hospitality business who agree, I simply say, “The change starts with you.” For chefs and managers, the staff looks to you for the inspiration that will get them through 4 to 6 hours of chaos, to be a rock and a pillar for the restaurant. Be conscious of that. To owners I ask, are you sitting at the bar holding court? What message do you send by drinking at your place of business?

To that end, here are some concrete steps that restaurant owners and managers can take to support a safe and healthy working environment:

  • Don’t pay out every night. Tips are a major part of the compensation for restaurant staffers. Many restaurants will pay out the tips at the end of the night, so people leave work and head to a local bar with several hundred dollars in cash in their pocket. Instead, I encourage restaurants to include tips on an employee’s paycheck. In addition to bookkeeping benefits, it reduces the chance that staff will impulsively spend their money on alcohol and other substances.
  • Create a no-drinking at work policy. I make it clear from day one that drinking or using substances in the workplace is not acceptable. If I find out someone was drinking at work, that employee is immediately let go. I expect professional behavior on the job, which includes not coming to work under the influence. Likewise, there should be significant consequences for an employee who doesn’t show up because he was out using all night.
  • Skip the after-work shift drink in favor of other team-building activities: An after-work drink is common at many restaurants, but it really primes the company culture to support alcohol and substance abuse. There’s also the liability aspect, too. If an employee gets drunk at your bar and then has an accident, your restaurant may be held responsible. Instead, find alternative ways to create a team culture. For example, we had a blast taking the staff for a paintball outing.
  • Encourage an open dialogue: I think it’s important to let your staff know that it’s safe for them to share if they’re in recovery or going through a difficult time. You want to create an inclusive atmosphere – one in which staff are rewarded for practicing self-care and don’t feel pressured to go along with the group. When we know someone on staff is in recovery, we watch out for them. My managers know my story -- many of them knew me before I was sober -- and they know how to be supportive.
  • If you’re in recovery, pace your career accordingly: I was recently talking to a friend who’s not even a year into his recovery, and he was disappointed that he wasn’t promoted at the restaurant where he works. I encouraged him to be patient and stay focused on his recovery and success would follow. If you’re in recovery and going back into the restaurant business or looking to start a career in hospitality, my advice is to be very, very honest with yourself. Take a good, solid inventory and make sure you have a strategy to protect and support yourself.

There will always be challenges in this industry, but I believe we are poised for change. We can continue to eradicate stigma by sharing our personal experiences with addiction, treatment and recovery. I hope that our collective voices and actions will foster a shift in restaurant culture that embraces sobriety and wellness.

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