A non-profit organization is bringing hope and healing to an industry with an insidious problem. After losing their friend to his struggle with mental health and substance abuse, two men in recovery decided to tackle the problem of addiction within the food and beverage business.

Substance Abuse in the Food Service Industry

Anybody who has spent time working in the food service and hospitality industries will not be surprised to learn that maintaining sobriety can be incredibly difficult when working in the field. The inconsistent and often low wages and high employee turnover combined with the stressful, fast-paced, and exhausting nature of food service make it a breeding ground for substance use and abuse. Not to mention the late hours and the fact that most restaurants serve alcohol, and it is no wonder the service industry has such an addiction issue.

This problem is reflected by data. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a study of addiction by industry. They found that accomodations and food service workers had the highest instances of substance use and the third highest prevalence of alcohol out of all the industries, only surpassed by the mining and construction fields.

The pervasiveness of substance and alcohol abuse disorders within the accomodations and food service industry is combined with an often complete lack of support for recovery. This lack of support was the ultimate catalyst for Ben’s Friends.

What is Ben’s Friends?

Ben’s Friends is an organization started by Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst. In 2016, Steve and Mickey lost their close friend Ben Murray to suicide after a long battle with addiction. Ben was a fun-loving, friendly chef in Atlanta who had been working towards his recovery but unfortunately passed away. A lack of support and community to open up to about his struggles in his recovery is believed to be one of the reasons for his passing. The loss of Ben spurred Steve and Mickey to action, which led to the development of the Ben’s Friends non-profit.

Steve and Mickey have both been sober for over twenty years. They are passionate about the food and beverage industry and helping others along their sobriety journey. They saw the devastating problem of addiction within the community and wanted to commit themselves to solving it.

The recovery environment is often a considerable part of an individual’s success in sobriety. But, when their job is rife with alcohol, substances, and people in active addiction, it can make achieving and maintaining sobriety remarkably difficult. Remaining sober is difficult even under ideal circumstances, and most restaurants are far from ideal.

In recovery, individuals struggling with drugs and alcohol are often told to leave environments where substance use occurs. But what if the place is their job, and they depend upon it for their livelihood? What if the person in recovery still has to serve alcohol and interact with it constantly?

These problems just scratch the surface of the difficulties faced by those in recovery who also work in the food and beverage industry. Not everyone has the luxury of existing in completely sober environments. Telling a recovering person that they must leave their profession to be in recovery can often do more harm than good. There is often stigma and judgment in traditional sobriety groups and treatments towards those who choose to maintain employment where drugs and alcohol are present.

Ben’s Friends was borne out of necessity—a strong need for a place where those surrounded by drugs and alcohol by virtue of their occupation can find solidarity, support, and understanding. Ben’s Friends opens the channels of communication so those in the food and beverage industry can relate to—and encourage—one another in recovery without shame and criticism.

How Ben’s Friends is Helping the Recovery Community

Ben’s Friends group leaders host several daily, hour-long meetings on Zoom for anyone interested in sobriety and sober support. While the discussions emphasize navigating the food and beverage industry while sober, working in a restaurant is not a prerequisite for attending the meetings. The Ben’s Friends meetings occasionally have special guest speakers who share their stories of recovery while navigating the complex food and beverage industry.

These meetings are offered twice daily, at 1 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Online meetings provide support and flexibility to those who may not have the time to attend in-person meetings. Online discussions also allow Ben’s Friends to support more people in more parts of the country than they otherwise could.

There are also weekly Men and Women’s groups hosted online each Wednesday.

What used to only be a couple of in-person groups in South Carolina and Georgia has now grown exponentially since Ben’s Friends was started only a few years ago. In-person meetings are also hosted in a variety of U.S. cities across 21 states:

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Aspen, Colorado
  • Austin, Texas
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Columbus, Ohio
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Healdsburg, California
  • Louisville, Kentucky
  • Nashville, Tennessee
  • New Buffalo, Michigan
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Oxford, Mississippi
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Richmond, Virginia
  • Rockaway, New York
  • San Francisco, California
  • Seattle, Washington
  • Viera, Florida
  • Washington, D.C.
  • West Palm Beach, Florida

Ben’s Friends also has a team of over 20 people around the United States who are open and willing to help those looking for support, with email contacts for the teammates listed on the website. Each group leaders have at least a year of sobriety.

Ben’s Friends Support Group Information

Check out their website to learn about Ben’s Friends and get dates and times for their in-person and virtual meetings, check out their website. For daily updates and sober living inspiration, follow their Facebook and Instagram.

You can also watch co-founder Steve Palmer’s Tedx Talk to learn more about recovery in the food and beverage industry or check out his book Say Grace about sober living within the restaurant business. All proceeds from Say Grace go towards funding the work of Ben’s Friends.