upserve coffee shop

“Not much has changed since then [the 1970s], especially in terms of drugs and alcohol,” Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential points out.

It turns out, this isn’t just one of Bourdain’s crazy statements. The connection between the restaurant industry and addition is clear. In fact, the restaurant industry takes some heat when it comes to addiction. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Health to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration paint a rough picture.

  • The highest rates of past month illicit drug use were found in the accommodations and food services industry (19.1 percent).
  • The workers in the accommodations and food services industry (16.9 percent) had the highest rates of past year substance use disorder.

Anecdotally, the data doesn’t surprise me. I know I’ve certainly noticed a higher instance of people who struggle with substances among my restaurant co-workers than the other professions I’ve dabbled in since my server days. In fact, I even noticed myself drinking a bit more and staying out a bit later that I even really enjoyed to when I was in the industry—there’s just something about it. You’re around alcohol all day and after a long night of dealing with sometimes difficult customers, nothing sounds better than a drink. Then another person gets off of their shift and another and before you know it you’ve got a party… and it’s Tuesday.

Waitress delivering restaurant customer service

Ted Ripko, recounting his complicated relationship with addiction and the restaurant industry, explained his situation similarly: “…we often all hung out together after work too. Drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes were rampant, fun, and in a lot of ways central to the culture… Managers permitted smoke breaks. Many of us started smoking just to get those precious minutes of freedom from the floor.”

The Sacramento Bee talks with a cook in Sacramento who also cites the culture as a contributing factor. He explains that substance use and abuse is “part of the culture.” He continues by noting that “it’s a combination of the hours (in restaurant work) and the accessibility… Beer, wine and liquor are around all the time.”

Bottom line: if you run a restaurant, are you doomed to expose your staff to a less-than-healthy and possibly dangerous environment?

Not necessarily.

There are a couple of things you can do to curb the connection and promote a healthier environment for your employees.

Sideline the Shift Drink

The shift drink is an age old tradition in the restaurant industry. Often it’s used as a way to thank employees for a long night’s work. But one drink often leads to another, and before you know it, the ball is rolling full steam ahead—all thanks to one free post-shift drink. There are plenty of other ways to reward your employees for a job well done. Many can spark the same kind of camaraderie for which the shift drink is often praised.

Tales of the Cocktail examines the shift drink (and it’s alternatives). “When shots and shift drinks aren’t on the table,” one head bartender says, “managers and beverage directors looking to reward staff for a job well done or build a stronger and more cohesive team have to get a little more creative. Local USBG groups and other industry groups can help facilitate that.” In this instance, it’s a team paddleboard outing.

waitstaff placing orders on Breadcrumb

Enact Policies

Employers prohibiting staff from drinking before, during, and after their shift at the restaurant is becoming more and more common. To combat that, perhaps it’s time to reconsider whether or not you want to have a liquor license at all. BYOB is an option in most places, so guests can still enjoy alcohol with their meal, but employees won’t have the same option after work. If you don’t have any alcohol for your employees to consume in the restaurant in the first place—whether it’s because of policies or the absence of a license—you’ll significantly curb the post-shift bleed into a full on night of partying.

Invest in Training

Several restaurant insurance companies like this one not only offer alcohol-awareness training for staff but also offer discounts to participating restaurants. The Society for Human Resource Management explains that some restaurants have “created programs that bring experts to the workplace to talk about substance abuse,” while others bring in speakers in order to make employees aware “that drug and alcohol abuse are endemic to the restaurant and bar industries.”

When you learned how to open a bar or restaurant, no one told you it might lead to addiction. Michelle Willard, beverage director or URBN Restaurants has an opinion about that, “So, although I want everyone to have a good time at work and enjoy work, maybe you’re in the wrong line of business if you’re doing that work because you want to get drunk at work.”

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Cinnamon is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and journalist who paid a large part of her way through college and graduate school by serving. Her work has been published with outlets like National Geographic, the Washington Post, Pacific Standard, and more. You can read more about her at www.cinnamon-janzer.com.