The analogy of the pirate ship is all too common when talking about the restaurant industry. Just in interviews for this article, four of the sources we spoke with used it as a reference. For instance, it’s often mentioned in terms of the hiring practices: Anyone who is able-bodied, available and willing to do the work can typically get a job.
But there’s a tendency to avoid the elephant in the room that also relates to the notion of a band of pirates — substance abuse, a practice that’s all too common and has traditionally been ignored within the industry at large. Restaurant workers, both front-of-house and back, have a reputation for not only working hard, but living hard and playing even harder. And it’s a facet of the job that may not be about to change anytime soon.
Hazards of the job
“In the restaurant industry, you work late into the night, so the only place that you have to go afterward is a bar,” says Alicia Nichols, who works as a server at one local restaurant and as a cook at another. She’s been managing, serving and cooking at restaurants — mostly in Asheville — since she entered the workforce.
Her first job was at age 13, when she worked as a dishwasher, server and prep cook at an Elk’s lodge in Arizona where her father was employed as a cook. “They had trouble keeping employees who could work and not get wasted,” she explains. “So they put in the 13-year-old girl who couldn’t drink, and so every weekend I would serve fried fish and steak to old people till 2 in the morning. So I was exposed to it and was drinking at an early age because it was available.”
A 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found the service industry to have the highest rates of both drug and alcohol consumption of any industry in the U.S. And it could be that the grueling schedule many workers must follow contributes to those numbers.
Just listening to Nichols talk about her weekly schedule is exhausting: She kicks off the week with two double shifts at one restaurant followed by four eight-hour shifts on the line at another — she scarcely had time to sit down for an interview for this story. So for dedicated workhorses like her, that drink with co-workers after a shift is often the best part of the day — and the only part that resembles a social life.
“It’s just such a physical job,” says Erin Ervin, who helped open Cúrate before taking over the catering program at Corner Kitchen. “You’re standing on hard surfaces in hunched-over positions for so long; you work so hard and when you get off work, there aren’t too many healthy options for you to do, but you have all this pent-up energy, so you go out and you drink. And you drink until you pass out because your body hurts.”
“Everyone in the service industry doesn’t use, but in my own personal experience, more used than didn’t,” says Bobby Messer, an industry veteran who spent eight years working as a bartender to pay his way through college and graduate school. He’s now a counselor at New Way Counseling and Wellness, where much of his work focuses on substance abuse. “It was always some form of substance, whether that substance was alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine or heroin,” he recalls of his time in the industry.
“I think that alcohol is the number one problem for sure, and cocaine is a huge one. It’s even more common than heroin, because people can come to work when they’re high,” notes Nichols. “I had one of my employees die of a heroin overdose right before her shift — heroin is actually a big thing in Asheville. I’ve had friends spend weeks in rehab just from struggling and relapsing. I’ve also watched multiple co-workers go to rehab for alcohol in the past three years.”
Even celebrated cocktail pioneer Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., has been calling the industry out for its laissez-faire attitude toward substance abuse. The first thing that has to happen to change attitudes, he said during a recent interview for the Dirty Spoon Radio Hour, is to recognize that substance abuse is a problem.
“When somebody dies in an avoidable way, we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and say, ‘That’s just the way it is.’ What is it they say? The first step is to acknowledge that you have a problem? But nobody will even mention the fact that this is a problem or that this is going on,” he said. “It’s not fair to talk about somebody after they die — this has always been a problem in the restaurant industry, so what are you going to do? It’s all these bullshit excuses.”
Messer says that, having worked both as a bartender and a substance abuse counselor, his best suggestion for someone experiencing substance abuse issues is to get off that pirate ship — find another job. “If you weren’t able to make the conscious choice to not do blow or not have that drink tonight, it’s not going to magically come to you,” he says. “Not every restaurant is eaten up with coke; you don’t have to be around that crowd.”
“Some people can have a drink, but I can’t,” says Ervin, who recently quit drinking and left the service industry, falling back on her studies in architecture to jump fields. Giving up alcohol was hard for her, but it could have been harder. “I don’t feel like I could have done that being in a kitchen,” she says. “I had to get out of that lifestyle, in a way. I love the culinary world, too — I want to be involved. But I can’t work on a line or run a catering company anymore. A lot of people feel stuck because they feel like this is all they’ve ever done, and there aren’t a lot of other options around here. It’s frustrating to see the problem and not know how to fix it.”
Nichols is also eyeing an exit. “It’s one of my biggest motivations to get out of the industry. I don’t want to live the rest of my life like this, in that environment,” she says. “I love food, and I love cooking and feeding people — it’s one of my favorite things in the world. But not in this way.” She is currently studying environmental science, hoping to work toward a masters degree and get out of the restaurant game.
As for fixing the industry itself overall, that’s a trickier proposition, says Messer. “When you talk about industry reform and say, ‘Well, what could you guys do?’ you really put [restaurant owners] on thin ice,” he explains. “If you’ve got good servers, good cooks, and maybe they have a coke problem, but they show up on time and work hard, you don’t want to shoot that in the foot.”
If owners do attempt to crack down on drug use and set the bar higher for staff, their initial turnover rate would be astronomical, he adds. “You work for yourself in a restaurant,” he says. “They pay you $2.13 an hour to show up and push their food. You don’t work for that place; you work for those tables. The management of every restaurant knows that they don’t have a crew of loyal employees, but a crew of mercenaries.
“They’re going to do what they want, and when you tell them, ‘You can’t do that here,’ they’re going to go somewhere else. Servers jump ship like nobody’s business. So the employee pool is conducive to substance use and abuse. We shouldn’t expect a greater impact until more of these societal problems are addressed.”
Charlotte Stack, operations director for Chai Pani Restaurant Group, which includes Chai Pani, Buxton Hall Barbecue, Spicewalla spice company and MG Road Bar & Lounge in Asheville as well as restaurants in the Atlanta area, acknowledges that the company has seen staff members leave, go through rehab, then return to work. The business, she says, is making an effort to respond to these challenges proactively. “We generally have an empathetic approach and not a one-strike-you’re-out kind of deal,” she says. “We want to be understanding of people’s issues and acknowledge that it is a disease.”
The restaurant group is shopping for health care plans that include mental health coverage, but until one is implemented, it has a dedicated emergency fund that managers can access for employees on a case-by-case basis. The fund, Stack says, has been used to pay for therapy sessions and rehab programs for staff. “I think we are pretty lucky in terms of our employment pool,” she says. “Obviously, we have some employees who struggle, but we also have a group of employees who are in recovery and really support each other.”
Stack adds that having a community-based resource for local hospitality workers would be helpful. She points to The Giving Kitchen, an Atlanta nonprofit that provides financial support and other assistance to restaurant workers in need. “They have been a huge resource for us in Atlanta,” she says. “If somebody’s bike gets stolen, they will buy them a new bike so they have transportation to work, or they’ll help pay for therapy or help people into rehab. So that’s our big dream — to bring something like that to Asheville.”
For now, it could be up to industry leaders to help shift the culture. “Maybe we can’t make it go away entirely, but we can at least shave the sharp edges off of it,” suggests Morgenthaler. “I don’t hire people that I suspect have drug problems. I don’t encourage that behavior, and I try to lead by example.”