Beyond AA: Where restaurant workers go for help

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In this in-depth investigation, NRN looks at how restaurants can recover from a culture of substance abuse.

Thirty-five years ago, when Mickey Bakst walked into his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, he realized he was the only hospitality worker in the group.

“It was all doctors, lawyers and housewives,” he said.

The general manager of the famed Charleston Grill credits AA for keeping him alive over four decades. But to survive in an industry where illicit drug use is rampant, he and fellow recovering addict and Charleston, S.C., restaurateur Steve Palmer had always talked about creating their own restaurant support group. 

But the idea faded until 2016, when one of Palmer’s chefs, Ben Murray, committed suicide.

Murray, who worked at Town Hall in Florence, S.C., was a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He ended his life after a long battle with addiction. Bakst and Palmer, managing partner at The Indigo Road Hospitality Group in Charleston, were hit hard by Murray’s death.

“There’s no longer an excuse. We have to do something,” Palmer said.

Ben’s Friends was born soon after. The fledgling support group held its first meeting at Indigo’s Cedar Room, in Charleston’s historic turn-of-the-century Cigar Factory. 

The group’s mission is simple: provide a safe haven for restaurant workers looking to get or stay sober.

Unlike AA, there is no set agenda at Ben’s Friends. Attendees simply riff on whatever is on their mind — namely the unrelenting pressures of hospitality work.

More than two dozen servers and chefs showed up to the first meeting. Their stories were similar.

Bakst said many talked about nearly “losing their shit” while dealing with an uptight chef or serving an obnoxious guest. The instant camaraderie was palpable.

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Jaci Lund