Ben's Friends' Mission to Fight Substance Abuse and Create More Supportive Restaurants

They’d seen it too many times – another person consumed. A budding career lost. Sometimes, an entire life, lost. All because of substance abuse.

And then it happened again. In 2016, restaurateurs and longtime friends Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst had to say goodbye to their friend and colleague, Ben Murray, after he took his own life inside a hotel room. Murray, a chef, had been helping to open up a restaurant. And he was also struggling with alcoholism, unbeknownst to his colleagues.

“I think the real tragedy was that we didn't really know he was struggling,” says Palmer. “In that restaurant, on that day, there were three sober chefs that would have done just about anything to help Ben.”

Both Palmer and Bakst dealt with their own roads to sobriety, now sustaining a combined 59 years of being sober. Today, Palmer is the managing partner of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which owns and operates nearly two dozen restaurants in the southeastern U.S., and Bakst is a retired ex-restauranteur with 47 years of experience. They’re also the co-founders of Ben’s Friends, an organization and community, named after Murray, that helps restaurant industry workers get sober and stay sober. 

Since launching in 2016 in Charleston, Ben’s Friends has expanded to host in-person meetings in 15 cities, as well as 21 virtual meetings per week. We sat down with Palmer and Bakst to talk about the organization’s mission, along with their own personal paths to sobriety. Plus, Palmer and Bakst share their advice on what to do if you suspect a colleague is struggling with substance abuse, and how to create a more supportive restaurant environment for everyone.

I’d love to hear more about the story behind Ben’s Friends and what fueled you to start the organization.

Palmer: I’ve been sober 20 years, and Mickey’s been sober 39 years. When we both got sober, mental health in restaurants was not a conversation. If anything, it was the sober community saying, “Well if you want to stay sober, you’ve got to get out of the industry”. And conversely, the restaurant business going, “There's no way you can stay sober in this business”. We were very much anomalies. We didn't know each other until later in our recovery, but we both had this desire to give back, after watching tragedy after tragedy. 

After Ben died, I called his mom, and I found out that he’d been in and out of detoxes, but never wanted to go to Twelve Step meetings. Mickey and I decided then that we would start a weekly group in Charleston, run by sober restaurant people, for people in the business seeking sobriety. 

Our aspirations at that point were just to help the Charleston community. But not too long after was when Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. Sort of overnight, we were getting calls from the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and suddenly there was this real interest in Ben’s Friends. A chef in Portland was reading an article, a chef in Austin was reading an article, and pretty soon we were in 14 cities. We just launched in our 15th city.

When COVID hit, your reach expanded even further by using Zoom. Tell me about that.

Palmer: We know that isolation is the enemy of recovery, and so we decided to go to Zoom. We have 21 Zoom meetings a week. The sort of happy accident is that many of the people that come haven’t ever actually physically been to a Ben’s Friends meeting. So we created a whole other audience. It goes without saying that this has become the most important work for Mickey and I. There's this beautiful network of amazing restaurant souls across the country that are getting sober and helping other people stay sober, and it's just continuing to grow.

I imagine these virtual sessions will now be a permanent part of your programming.

Bakst: Absolutely. It's funny because that certainly wasn't our intent. It's the groups’ intent. Ben’s Friends members would revolt if we tried to take it offline because people get to hear so many different opinions and thoughts from people in different areas. We’ve created this network of friends across the country. And now people travel to meet people that they've been talking to. I was just in San Francisco and met somebody that I met two years ago online.

How large is the network now?

Bakst: I can’t guess an exact number, but if you figure that every chapter has around 25 people coming in and out, and that’s 25 times 15 [chapters], and online we average 30 to 50 people each meeting – I honestly think we've touched thousands over the years.

Are you open to sharing how each of you came to sobriety while continuing to work in the industry?

Bakst: For both of us, it was the Twelve Steps community. We came into a community of A.A., [Alcoholics Anonymous], which both of us are absolutely supporters of. It saved both of our lives. But when we came in, I don't know that I met another restaurant person in my first five years, you know, because A.A. would tell people back then, “If you want to get sober, get the hell out of the business”. How long was it before you had a friend who was in the industry sober Steve?

Palmer: Almost five years. There was just nobody. It was fairly lonely.

A.A. was extremely valuable for both of you, and for so many people. But can you address the benefits of having a community that's for the industry, and focused on the industry.

Bakst: It’s about having a community of like-minded people. Let’s be honest, the restaurant industry is hard. We work long hours, under a lot of pressure. We miss birthdays, anniversaries. We're surrounded by alcohol, and everywhere we turn, for years as an industry, we actually encouraged drinking. I was in San Francisco last week and heard about a restaurant where everybody on staff takes a shot before work. So to have an organization of people who understand not just the addiction, but the lifestyle that we live, is absolutely beneficial. 

And we're helping to change the way the industry is looking at alcohol. Before, somebody would come in drunk, and we’d tell them to get the hell out. But we don't want to lose people. We don't want to throw them away. We want to help owners and managers learn to deal with people on staff who are having problems, and instead of discarding them, embrace and help them. 

You’ve mentioned that alcohol is essentially normalized as a bonding tool in the hospitality industry. But at the same time, do you feel like that’s beginning to change at all now, as well as the conversations around mental health?

Palmer: Absolutely. Never before has our industry been talking about mental health the way we are now. Accepting of people when they're going through problems, investing in non-alcoholic drink programs – all of these things are signs that there's an awareness around alcohol abuse. And I love it. 

We spend every night taking care of other people. We're just now learning how to take care of ourselves. We're grateful to be a part of this moment. There's so much negative media around the industry as a whole, but we both love the industry and have made lives out of it. So to watch people lean into mental health is just really inspiring.

Tell me about the meetings that Ben’s Friends hosts.

Bakst: It sounds like the kitchen.

Palmer: We say A.A. is a program, and Ben’s Friends is a community. We do not profess to be a program. And honestly in a lot of cases, if you come to a meeting, we're going to try and get you into therapy or Twelve Steps or some other forum. But if you've been to a Twelve Steps meeting, it definitely feels like one of those, where it's a roundtable [discussion] and people are talking about what they're going through. There's usually a topic. But we're not presenting ourselves as a replacement for anything – for therapy or A.A. We’re a supplement. It’s just a safe place for open discussions. But you don't have to talk if you don’t want to.

Can you talk about the importance of having a support group in this industry?

Bakst: I certainly wouldn't be here if I didn't find some form of a support group. Plain and simple, I would be dead. Trying to get sober on your own is just a task that’s horribly, horribly difficult and made so much easier by having support.

Palmer: Trying to get sober in any environment is hard, and you need support. You need to see that others have walked the path before you and there's immense power in that. I always say, somebody can walk into a Ben’s Friends meeting and they may not know anybody in the room, but they know that that’s the line cook, she's the bartender, he's a dishwasher, she's a general manager. They know that they are with their people. And that creates a feeling of being safe. Certainly something like addiction, there's strength in numbers. There's accountability, there's acceptance. 

Where do you see the future of Ben’s Friends?

Bakst: I hope Ben's Friends grows into every state, and then in different cities across each state. I hope that we create a network of sober F&B people that are willing to drop what they're doing to help other F&B people who are struggling. I want to see us spread. 

Advice if an industry colleague is, or may be, struggling with substance abuse

  • Look for signs of distress: “Here's the insidious thing about addiction – it's the only disease that tells you you don't have a disease,” says Palmer. “And what I mean by that is, cancer patients are not walking around saying, ‘I don't have cancer’. But alcoholics are walking around saying ‘I'm fine’ all day long.” Your employees or coworkers might not tell you they’re struggling, but you can look for traditional signs of distress, says Steve. These include emotional volatility, tardiness, decreased quality of work, and/or changed quality of appearance.

  • If you notice signs of distress, approach the person – don’t wait for them to approach you: “Have the uncomfortable conversations,” says Palmer. “I always say, good friends say what needs to be said, not what wants to be said.”

  • Know that the outcome of the conversation might not be what you want, and it could take several attempts: “Most of us in the sober community didn’t get sober on our first attempt. I went to rehab three times,” says Palmer. “You may sit down with a friend or coworker and say, ‘We're really concerned’, and they may not be very receptive. But you may be planting the seed, so that when the third person says, ‘Hey, I'm really worried about you’, that’s the moment they recognize they have a problem.”

  • Come from a place of care, not judgment: “When you're going to talk to somebody, come from a place of love,” says Palmer. “Use words like ‘I'm concerned’, ‘I'm worried”, versus ‘you're drinking too much’.” 

Ways to create a more supportive work environment

  • Cut shift drinks: “The whole idea of drinking at work, there are very few industries where that's normalized,” says Palmer. “It’s not about judging others about what they want to do, but about creating a more professional environment.” 

  • Work the topic of mental health into lineup conversations: During lineup, we always say, ‘Hey, if you're not okay, let us know’,” says Palmer. “You really have to activate a culture of mental health. It can’t just be like, ‘Oh yeah, we care about our employees’. They have to be hearing that on a regular basis.”

  • Create an environment that fosters open communication, not fear of punishment: “Operators should be letting staff know that their employees won't be fired [for speaking up], and instead they'll be helped,” says Bakst.

  • Hire a staff therapist if you can budget it. If not, designate a point person for on-call communication: “Every operator can’t afford to have a therapist, but every operator can afford to have somebody on-call, so if somebody needs to talk, they’re there,” says Bakst. “Don’t avoid it. Communicate, provide help, offer suggestions.”

  • Consider adding Naloxone (Narcan) training to your onboarding process: “When we talk substance abuse, we know alcohol’s certainly not the only problem,” says Bakst. “I’m a big advocate of [Narcan training].”

  • Use flyers or other visible materials to direct staff to external mental health resources: Print and post flyers that include links to mental resources, like A.A., therapy networks, and Ben’s Friends, says Bakst. Ben’s Friends has its own printout for operators to use. “ I hate to sound selfish, but operators should be pushing Ben’s Friends. We will do anything we can for F&B people struggling,” says Mickey. “We've developed a network of people in all regions of the country who will talk to people, who will guide people."