The underbelly of working in restaurants kitchens was addressed in the late author and chef Anthony Bourdain’s seminal book: “Kitchen Confidential.” Steve Palmer, co-founder of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group, knows it all too well. In this episode, Palmer discusses the pervasiveness of alcoholism and substance abuse within F&B, its root causes and what can be to do to address it.
Highlights from Today’s Episode
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Steve Palmer: Addiction. Is giving up everything, for one thing. Recovery is giving up one thing for everything. And when you think about it in that context, why wouldn’t you give up the one thing? Just know that there is hope. Listen, I’m not the guy you would have bet on to get sober. I’m not. I was the drunkest guy at the party. I was the guy out till six in the morning. I was not the guy you would have bet on. So if I can get sober, anybody can.
Robin Trimingham: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels magazine with weekly thought provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators. Welcome to the innovative hotelier brought to you by HOTELS magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham. When we think of the restaurant industry, most people typically imagine sleek gathering places with fine wines, tempting morsels of food, artfully presented on white plates and beautiful people attending to their every whim. What we don’t think about is the dark, high pressure world riddled with stress, burnout, alcohol and drug addiction and even death. And yet, as my guest today can attest from firsthand experience, there are real problems lurking in many restaurant kitchens, and it’s time for them to be exposed and better understood so that the healing can begin. Join me now for a no holds barred conversation with well known restaurateur and founder of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group, Steve Palmer. F.O.H is a global food service and hospitality company that manufactures smart commercial grade solutions. Headquartered in Miami, the company designs and manufactures all their restaurant and hotel products. They have showrooms and distribution centers located throughout the globe, and their products are always in stock and ready to ship from any of their distribution centers worldwide. Welcome, Steve. It’s great to get a chance to chat with you today.
Steve Palmer: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Robin Trimingham: I am really looking forward to this conversation. When I heard about you and your personal story, I was like, I absolutely want to chat with this guy.
Steve Palmer: Thank you.
Robin Trimingham: For the benefit of our viewers who haven’t had the opportunity to watch your Ted Talk, which I did, and I was riveted. Tell us a little bit what makes you the ideal spokesperson for addiction in the restaurant industry?
Steve Palmer: Well, I don’t know if I’m the ideal person. I’m certainly passionate about mental health recovery from drugs and alcohol and certainly have a lot of experience in that. I’m a lifelong hospitality. Darian started when I was 13 washing dishes. I’ve been a line cook. I’ve been a waiter or a bartender, worked for Ritz-Carlton hotels for Ginn Resorts. So I’ve been in a lot of different facets of the hospitality industry. Loved them all for different reasons. But I’m also a recovering alcoholic. I’m somebody that struggled with addiction from a very early age and both found acceptance in the industry in terms of the ability to progress in my career to find an environment that was welcoming, but also found an environment that thankfully is changing as we all grow and evolve, but also found an environment that was very apt to promote late night drinking, lots of drinking, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and through really a series of tragedies have been fortunate enough with my co-founder Mickey Bakst to in 2016 founded a group called Ben’s Friends, which is in honor of a chef that we had Ben Murray, who tragically committed suicide and who struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. And we founded Ben’s friends. And now last count, we’re in 29 cities. So have grown. That community is what we like to call Ben’s friends. And it’s simply a community of hospitality workers that love the industry but have also struggled with addiction and are finding a path to sobriety and not only a path to sobriety, finding a way to be productive employees, employers to really thrive in the hospitality business. And so I will say it all the time. It’s truly my life’s greatest work. I love my day job as the founder of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group. But getting to be of service to those in service is really been the most meaningful work and continues to be that I’ve ever been a part of.
Robin Trimingham: And it’s a very noble thing that you’re doing. Let’s see if between us, you and I, if we can really help some people here, because you used a phrase earlier on that really resonated with me. You talked about the restaurant industry being a really welcoming environment. Now, welcoming can mean a whole pile of different things because you’re absolutely right, you named some of the positive things that can be very welcoming in advancing your career, learning new skills, meeting wonderful chefs. But there’s another side to all of this, because this welcoming environment can also make it easy for. Somebody who is prone to addiction to pursue some of those things. And to a degree, at least until more recently, I think maybe this is an industry that has, I’m going to use the word, been in denial a little bit about the extent of the problem, what’s really going on. National Restaurant Association estimates about 60% of new restaurants fail within their first year and 80% maybe within five years. Do you think to a degree, this is an industry that somehow is attracting that I’m going to call the gambler speculator, addiction prone kind of personality in the first place because maybe they like the thrill.
Steve Palmer: Sure. Yes. So all of that. I think that within our industry, you have to enjoy being busy. You have to enjoy the stress. And a stress also produces adrenaline. A lot of times as a survival instinct, I think you have to enjoy being busy. I certainly think that wanting to please other people, finding satisfaction in making other people happy is at the root of hospitality. But sure, I’ll always stop short and saying the industry makes somebody an addict or makes somebody an alcoholic. But previously you said it. I think there was a certain glamorization as the celebrity chef became a big thing over the last 20 years. A lot of those guys and girls were sort of like the lead singer of the rock band. You know, they were the ones that we all loved, but also the ones that could be very self destructive and destructive in a manner that creates a toxic working environment. And thankfully, I think we’ve really woken up to that and really understood that there’s a real need to both address mental health, but also a need just to make the industry more attractive to people, more holistic in its approach to how it treats its employees. But yes, I would agree, grudgingly agree because I love the industry so much and I always want to see the brightest and the best parts of it. But yes, this industry certainly can promote addictive behavior.
Robin Trimingham: To what extent do you think it’s inevitable that the long hours and the late nights and the high stress lead to addiction? Because I think it might be fair to say this is sort of a chicken and egg conversation. Is it an industry that’s attracting this personality trait? Is it an industry that is leading people down this path because they don’t have strong coping skills in place?
Steve Palmer: Yeah, I mean, it depends on who you talk to. There are plenty of people that work in the restaurant business that deal with the adrenaline and the stress who are not addicted. I think it’s first understanding that addiction is a disease. It is a genetic code that says that I am predisposed no matter whether I work on Wall Street, at a nursing home, at an elementary school. I’m predisposed. And to that degree that someone has the genetic code of addiction and they step into an environment where, historically speaking, drug and alcohol abuse has been accepted. Sure, it’s going to it’s going to accelerate all of those things. But purely from a mental health point of view, it’s really understanding that addiction is a disease.
Robin Trimingham: Yeah, I completely agree with you that it is. And what’s challenging about this one is I think and I’m no medical expert, but my experience would lead me to believe that just about any of us can and is addicted to something where it gets tricky is that some of us are addicted to things that are socially acceptable. Chocolate. I was very guilty their caffeine all day long. But in the other realm, if the thing you’ve gotten or one has gotten oneself addicted to is not socially acceptable, not legally acceptable, it’s a bit more of a problem. And where it gets so difficult is we seem to say that, oh, only those people need to be singled out, only those people need to be identified. And the rest of us with the caffeine addiction, which might very well be are affecting our job performance and our relationships with peers. Oh, we’re fine. And I’m not really sure that’s the case at all.
Steve Palmer: Well, certainly getting behind the wheel of a car when you had too many cups of coffee is probably less risk laden than somebody who’s drinking too much. The thing about true addiction is there’s only two results. Once you if you have the disease of addiction and you’re not making the choice to get sober, the only outcome is death or jail. And that sounds pretty dramatic, but for so long, there’s been so much shame around addiction or it’s been seen as a matter of willpower. If you were just stronger, you wouldn’t drink so much. And again, thankfully, as we understand really the nature of mental health, we understand that a lot of it is genetic. A lot of it is generational, which is something that we don’t talk a lot about. If you are someone like myself that’s been in the recovery community for a minute, you meet brothers and uncles and cousins and sisters and you realize that it is a very hereditary situation. So let’s hope that caffeine addiction never equals drug and alcohol addiction, although some people would say caffeine is a drug, but there are degrees. I don’t think your chocolate addiction is going to kill you. But we know that drug and alcohol addiction kills people every day.
Robin Trimingham: I think it’s fair to say, though, that the restaurant industry, hospitality in general, it attracts creative people, people pleasing people. And we know this and we recruit for them actively. And from one perspective, we might be setting them up for failure because we don’t provide the support, the nurturing, the work tools that that particular mindset actually needs in order to thrive in a workplace environment. What would you say to that?
Steve Palmer: My hope through these conversations, through the starting of Ben’s friends, is that all of us are more actively engaged in creating a better work environment, right? I mean, we don’t drink at work. We don’t do shift drinks. We don’t do shots at the end of the bar, at the end of the night, we provide free mental health. We have a set of values and culture that employees know what they can expect from us in the way of a behavior, and they also know what’s expected of them and how they treat each other. So all of this, to me, the root of it is we have to be better employers. And by doing so, the belief is that we’ll have better employees and that the third step to that is that our guests will have better experiences, which is ultimately the goal. I mean, it’s all the goal, but in the hospitality space, nobody’s going to go to a 9 to 5 job in an office environment and think that having a shot of whiskey at 1:00 in the afternoon is an acceptable form of behavior. Nobody. But somehow along the way, that kind of behavior became acceptable in the restaurant industry. And by removing that and really not just telling our employees we care about, but then demonstrating that and and that is all something that is in everyday practice. It’s an everyday engagement. And again, I believe because it is the number one aspiration of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group to change our industry by being a better employer so that ten years from now we’re not having this conversation, we’re having a different conversation.
Robin Trimingham: I think that is an admirable and doable goal. Let’s talk about some of your compatriots who might not really be there yet, what they’re thinking. Why do you think certain employers, certain segments of the restaurant hospitality industry have been so tight lipped about and maybe even in denial about what is clearly a real problem?
Steve Palmer: Well, I think that there’s a couple of things. I think that there has historically been a social acceptance of alcohol abuse in the workplace. I think I mean, listen, alcohol in moderation, right? Because not everybody that drinks has a problem. My wife drinks normally and has no issues. Alcohol is something that’s it’s a social lubricant. We drink it around a dinner table. We share it at parties. It lowers our inhibitions. So we feel this sense of bonding and connection. So I think it can be real gray at times about, well, is that bad? If I have a couple of drinks with this person and we get to we relax and we get to know each other better. Of course it’s not bad, but it’s all in context, right? Certainly in the workplace it’s bad. And I think it’s really asking all operators, managers, chefs to look at the environment that you currently are working in. Would you say your employees are healthy? Would you say they are happy? And by happy, I don’t mean I just gave somebody three shots of tequila and they’re in a great mood. I mean, are you promoting an environment where employees are taking care of their selves? We offer family meal. One of our friends chairs, Philip Spear in Austin, Texas. He started a run club that is now extended beyond people in recovery.
Steve Palmer: So again, all of these little things, what I would say to people who aren’t quite there yet, your employees are what make your restaurants, your hotels, your bars work. They are the lifeblood of what you do. And if you are not thinking about them and how to be better for them, you’re missing a real opportunity not only to be a better employer. By the way, I think you have a more profitable business when you have a healthier business. So I think anybody that isn’t looking at this with a more critical open mind really is in denial. Maybe they themselves have issues that they don’t want to address. I’m certainly not finger pointing, but I can remember when I first got sober some of my best friends, my best drinking buddies, suddenly my phone didn’t ring anymore because if I have a drinking problem and we were together all the time, what does that say about them? And that’s the other thing about mental health. And I can’t say this enough. I’m not saying drinking is bad. I’m saying it was bad for me being sober and co-founding Ben’s friends and being in this space and in this conversation with you is not about some moral superiority. It’s about an acknowledgment that people are really hurting and we need to do something about it.
Robin Trimingham: Established in 2002 is a woman owned global food service and hospitality company that manufactures smart, savvy commercial grade products, including plateware, drinkware, flatware. Hotel amenities and more. Driven by innovation F.O.H is dedicated to delivering that wow experience that restaurants and hotels crave all while maintaining a competitive price. All products are fully customizable, and many are also created using sustainable eco friendly materials such as straws and plates made from biodegradable paper and wood and PVC free drinkware. F.O.H Has two established brands. Front of the house focused on tabletop and Buffet Solutions and Room 260, which offers hotel products. Check out their collections today at FOHworldwide.com. I agree with something that you said a couple of minutes ago about having a better, more profitable business when you have healthy employees. And I think for anybody who’s an employer listening to this, who hasn’t quite woken up to how important this is, I mean, the statistics are there. It is five times more expensive to find, hire and train a new employee, particularly in an industry like the restaurant where actual real skill is required. You have to fillet the fish the way the restaurant does it, not the way they did it three restaurants ago. And you guys live and die by reviews social media. If you have somebody who’s. I’m just going to say only half present preparing food. You’re getting a meal that was created by somebody who is half present. How in the world is that ever going to be a good thing in the long run? That’s right. Okay. So this might seem to you like a dumb question, but I bet it’s a question a lot of our listeners will have. We all know somebody that we feel drinks too much, uses a little too much substance. We’ll leave it there. It’s a family friendly podcast, but how much is too much? How do you how do you draw the line? How do you know that I’m okay? You’re okay. But Joe over there isn’t right.
Steve Palmer: I always say look for the behaviors, you know, is this person consistently late at work or are they coming to work in clean clothes every day? Do they look like they’ve showered? I know this sounds a little basic.
Robin Trimingham: Good point.
Steve Palmer: Emotional mood swings. One day Joe is in a great mood and on top of the world. The next day, Joe is irritable, head down, kind of dark. Those are the kind of telltale signs when really the emotional swings, that’s a telltale of some kind of mental health. It doesn’t mean, oh, you’re having mood swings, you’re an alcoholic, but it does mean, hey, there’s something wrong that needs to be looked at. And I always tell people, I get asked, I’m sure you would imagine a lot, but what do we say?
Robin Trimingham: Oh, that’s going to be my next question. Definitely go.
Steve Palmer: For it. Yeah. You know, what do we say? And I think the saddest thing is so often we don’t say anything at all. Right. Maybe we were out drinking with Joe three days ago. The difference being I haven’t been out drinking in the last three days and Joe’s been out every single night. Again, it’s the social gray area of the subject of drinking. I always, always say, first and foremost, I encourage people, say something, say something. You may not get a positive response. You may not get the response you were hoping for. But the thing about addiction and I say this a lot, it’s the only disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. Right. Cancer patients are not walking around saying, I don’t have cancer. I’m fine. But alcoholics are walking around saying I’m fine all the time. So so know that when you say something, you might get a negative response, you might get a deflection or a denial. But when the third person says something. Maybe that person pauses and says, Wow, all these different people are asking me. So that’s the first thing I say is know that you might just be planting a seed that will bear fruit further down the road. The second thing, and I think this is important, is to not come at someone from a place of judgment. If you start the conversation by saying, Joe, I think you have a drinking problem, I can almost guarantee it’s not going to go well.
Steve Palmer: If you come at the conversation from a place of care and compassion. Hey, Joe, I’m worried about you. I really just want you to be okay. But lately, you seem like X, Y and Z. I think when we come at it from a care and not a you have a problem. It shifts the dynamic that even if you don’t get a good response, what that person, the first thing they heard was that you cared about them. And again, that might plant a seed. So I think the worst thing that we do and sometimes to a fatal result, unfortunately, is that we don’t say anything. We ignore the problem, we sweep it under the rug. And that is absolutely the wrong approach because as I said earlier, addiction only wants one thing and that’s to kill you. This is a serious subject. It truly is a life and death subject and our industry and have some real world, very recent experiences where people are dead now and people are coming out of the woodwork going, well, I was going to say something and I was worried about and, you know, look, the truth is it may not have mattered. But I think as that sort of old adage of being our brother’s keeper, if we all just create environments where we care a little bit more for each other, I guarantee that the prospect of someone getting help is exponentially increased.
Robin Trimingham: I couldn’t agree with you more. In fact, I would say you might not be the first person or the third person or the fifth person to say something. But if you became the person to actually say something that finally resonated, why would you ever want to miss out on that opportunity?
Steve Palmer: That’s right.
Robin Trimingham: I think if you extend a hand of friendship, of caring, I don’t think that you can be in it for self gratification, expecting to be hero or expecting it to go well. But I think you’re doing it because, as you say, you actually care what happens to that person.
Steve Palmer: Yeah, 100%. No one wants to live with the regret of feeling like there was something more that could be done and you didn’t do it.
Robin Trimingham: Yeah, I completely agree with that. Let’s change the subject a little bit here. Some people who are hard nosed, cynical think they know more than you and me about all of this are going to say that. Well, the solution to the problem is very simple. We’re just going to have drug testing in the workplace.
Robin Trimingham: How do you feel about that?
Steve Palmer: First and foremost, many states are legalizing marijuana. So that would be a you know it depends on where you a challenge.
Robin Trimingham: Yeah.
Steve Palmer: I think that real talk you would find it hard to staff some of your restaurants if you did that. I circle back to the statement of I’m not saying alcohol is bad. I personally don’t even think marijuana is bad. It’s what you do in our four walls when you’re with us that matter. Personal freedoms is a real thing. There are companies, bigger corporate hotel companies that drug test. We would have a very hard time staffing our restaurants if we did that. Just being totally honest.
Robin Trimingham: You, I know, have experienced profound personal loss and struggled your own self personally on your road to recovery. What would you say to our followers who are currently struggling with with addiction of any kind at the moment?
Steve Palmer: I would say that there is hope. The insanity of addiction. I go back to the end of my drinking where I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt there was a problem. I couldn’t imagine my life with alcohol, but I couldn’t imagine it without alcohol either. And that is a demoralizing place to be. You’re in a cycle where you know what you’re doing is bad for you, but you can’t see a way out. And I say this a lot. The life that you want is right outside that doorway. You just have to step through it. And I remember when I was in rehab, I was probably eight days sober. And the therapist, we were in a group session and he said, What do you want from life? And, you know, everybody had these answers. And I said, Inner peace. I was tired. I was emotionally tired. If you would have told me, in 21 years, you’ll have a thriving hospitality company, you would have started a nonprofit that helps people. You would have a wife, a child. I would have said, there’s no way that that could be my life. And so what I always say to struggling people is you have no idea how good your life can be. You just have to take a chance. One other thing I’ve heard, I didn’t make it up. It said addiction. Is giving up everything, for one thing. Recovery is giving up one thing for everything. And when you think about it in that context, why wouldn’t you give up the one thing? Just know that there is hope. Listen, I’m not the guy you would have bet on to get sober. I’m not. I was the drunkest guy at the party. I was the guy out till six in the morning. I was not the guy you would have bet on. So if I can get sober, anybody can.
Robin Trimingham: I love how you put that. There’s a very famous quote, and I may get it slightly wrong, but what it loosely says is you have to give up the life that you’ve planned for yourself in order to find out what’s really waiting for you. That’s right. One of the things that people miss about addiction is you actually planned this in a way. Yes, I agree. It’s genetic. I agree that there can be circumstances that make it really hard for you to manage your situation, but as long as on some level you’re managing to be an addict on a certain level, you’re actually planning this. And Oh.
Steve Palmer: Absolutely. And let me be clear, in no way am I saying that as an addict, I’m not responsible for my behavior because you’ve made a choice. And I always say, thank God my life didn’t go the way I planned it because it’s gone so much better.
Robin Trimingham: Yeah. One of the few things I want to touch on for 30s is when we use the word addiction. People tend to think drugs, illegal ones and alcohol, and we kind of leave out the door. Number three. And the door number three can be the deepest, darkest secret of all addiction to something that has been legally prescribed. You are addicted to the point that you cannot function without it. It has taken over your life. People have a tendency to say, Oh, well, that’s not really addiction. This person’s under medical care, but an Oxy being, you know, the one that we’ve all heard of. Absolutely. There are lots of them. You know, there’s stuff that we’ve haven’t heard of that you can’t even pronounce. And you can be addicted beyond the level where you’re employable.
Steve Palmer: Yeah. Many, many stories that I know of started with someone that was in a car wreck. Lately, sadly, I’ve seen, well, have anxiety. So people are being given these mood stabilizers, which effectively they’re completely checked out. They’re sitting in a room, but they’re not there. And here’s the truth. And I am no medical expert, but I visit doctors and I’m in recovery. Many people in the medical community still do not understand addiction. They still do not understand that the culture of prescribing you a pill because you’re dealing with an emotional problem is fraught with risk. I am certainly not suggesting there aren’t people that need to be on medication that aren’t given responsible medications, but the opioid crisis just exposed Pain management as a whole is a subject. I can tell you that as a person in recovery, I’ve had five surgeries and I’ve had to be prescribed. I would never take Oxy, but Percocet. I have had those pills given to somebody else. They have administered them to me in exactly the manner that which they are prescribed. And I have gotten off of them as quickly as I can because I’m an addict and they feel good. And I see the real danger in somebody that, let’s say, doesn’t have the kind of support system that I have that goes into a surgery. They get given an opioid. And I think that’s why I don’t think I know that’s why the heroin epidemic in the last ten years and fentanyl and these things that are dropped. But yes, prescription drugs are very dangerous. And just because you’re being given a prescription drug does not mean that you are safe from being addicted to it in any way, shape or form.
Robin Trimingham: One of the other things that often gets kind of swept off the table is not really being all that important is what happens to the family members who are a mixture of shell shocked and perpetually in crisis mode. Cleaning up after protecting and unfortunately enabling all of this and some and to some degree, unwittingly.
Steve Palmer: Yes. The enabling around addiction, it is often masked as care and concern as you would imagine. I get a lot of calls from spouses, sisters, brothers. What do I do? And I most often say the same thing. Listen, you need to confront, but then honestly, at a certain point, you need to get out of the way because the addiction is destructive to everyone around it. And cleaning up the mess, bailing people out. All you’re doing is creating an environment for them to stay sick. And it’s hard when you’re telling a wife you don’t need to bail him out of jail or you need to leave him because you need to take care of your children when you you know, these are gut wrenching and it speaks to the cycle of addiction. But I say it a lot. The worst thing you can do is to continue to enable it because the person’s going to stay sick. And part of their sickness is knowing that somebody else is going to clean up the mess. Because as an addict, until you face real consequences and that’s different for every person until you hit bottom, there’s no hope of you getting sober. And even after that, there’s no guarantee. I mean, right. The success rate in addiction is still like one in every ten. It’s pretty terrible, but guaranteed there’s no chance for recovery as long as the addict or the alcoholic is being enabled as an employer in our industry, that sometime that means what the best thing you can do for that person is fire them. And that sounds harsh, but it’s the reality.
Robin Trimingham: Yeah, to a degree. Employers who just look the other way or are flat out in denial because they just don’t know what’s going on in their own kitchen, if you will. They are enablers. Nobody wants to hear that. Nobody wants to wake up one morning and go, I’m so and so and I’m an enabler. There are at least as many enablers out there as there are addicts absolutely.
Robin Trimingham: I think that’s one of the points that a lot of people involved in this conversation don’t really realize. You know, that expression, it takes a village. Most, most successful addicts, they don’t just have one enabler. They have a villain.
Steve Palmer: Right. Because when you are participating in that kind of behavior, you will find people to cosign it for you. You know, Oh, it’s not that bad. It’s not that bad. You’re fine. One of my best friends, the day I got out of rehab, he, like, for two hours. This was all an overreaction. You’re fine. And he meant well. It was well intended because, again, he didn’t want to have to look at himself. It’s much easier to just enable the behavior.
Robin Trimingham: Yeah, absolutely. So we have a couple of minutes left here. What’s your key message for everybody who sees this broadcast?
Steve Palmer: If you can foster an environment where our happy whole mentally, well, employees can thrive and that means all the things I’ve mentioned. Talk about mental health, take the alcohol consumption out of the workforce, promote mental health, have resources. It is only going to make our industry better. And I promise you the lives that we see in Ben’s friends that came in at day one. Circles under their eyes. No hope. Life in complete shambles. And then you see that person in a year, two years. And they’re bright and they’re smiling and they’re thriving. There’s nothing that replaces that. So I would say be engaged in making our industry a better place.
Robin Trimingham: I think that’s a great place to leave it. Steve, I want to thank you so much. I hope that a great number of people will hear this conversation and seek help. Any kind of help if any part of all of this is resonating with you. You’ve been watching the innovative hotelier. Join us again soon for more up to the minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry. You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders.