Health

Navigating a Booze Industry Lifestyle When Your Body Fights Back

Professionals offer advice for excelling in the drinks business while managing chronic health conditions

From left to right: Melissa Hoffman, Kellie Thorn, and Melinda Staehling.

Nightly restaurant meals, late-night hangs, day drinking, and life on the road may be easy to manage when you’re a young person just starting your career, but unlike fine wine, the human body doesn’t necessarily get better with age. Over time, beverage industry workers may find themselves rethinking their lifestyles and adopting new habits in an effort to achieve better health and wellness. But sometimes a healthier lifestyle is a necessity—for example, if you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic condition like an autoimmune disorder.

Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. have an autoimmune disorder, according to experts at the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. It’s unclear why autoimmune (AI) diseases develop, and there are no guidelines for prevention, but dietary changes, such as eliminating gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye) and other triggering foods, seem to aid in symptom management for some individuals with AI conditions. As for alcohol, people with AI disorders often find that their ability to process booze takes a nosedive. So what do people do if eating and drinking is part of their job? SevenFifty Daily reached out to three beverage professionals who manage AI conditions to get advice on how to navigate the industry lifestyle while maintaining health and wellness. Here, they share their tips.

Find alternate ways to connect with customers.

Melinda Staehling was the general manager at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles when she started experiencing symptoms. “Pretty much overnight I went from being totally okay to really dizzy and sick,” she says. “I lost a lot of my motor skills, I was having problems seeing straight, and I couldn’t judge distances through a doorway. If somebody looked at me, they would probably think I was drunk.”

She was diagnosed with gluten ataxia, a rare autoimmune disorder that can affect nerve tissues and muscle control and cause brain damage. Seeking a break from the high stress and late hours of restaurant life, Staehling changed career paths and moved into wine sales. While the lifestyle allowed her to better manage her symptoms, she had to approach customer relationships in a different manner from that of other reps. “I know that socializing and being out in the market is a big part of my job,” she says, “and I’m never going to be that person that’s out drinking or the last person at the bar. I know that a lot of people do their business that way, which, all the power to them, but I have to find a different way.”

Now a sales consultant with Elevation Fine Wine, a division of Breakthru Beverage Nevada, Staehling says good communication and excellent service are paramount to building business. “You have to take extra care with [your relationships]: Every email counts, and every in-person meeting has to count,” she says. “My product knowledge [needs to be on point] because I’m never going to be the one that’s out and about at night, making deals.” She prides herself on her ability to develop meaningful customer interactions and to build relationships organically.


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Get your team more involved.

Kellie Thorn, the beverage director for the Hugh Acheson restaurant group in Georgia, was studying for her Cicerone certification and working in a beer-focused bar before she started experiencing symptoms. She was subsequently diagnosed with celiac disease, an AI disorder in which gluten consumption results in damage to the small intestine. After going through an elimination diet, in which she removed known inflammatory foods from her meals, she landed on a gluten-free culinary regimen that seems to help keep her AI disorder in check. However, traditional beer—which contains gluten—had to go, a huge challenge for a beverage director. These days Thorn schedules tastings (and yes, she spits) on days when she knows she doesn’t have to stay late and can go home afterward if she’s not feeling well. More importantly, “Now I involve my staff; I have a lot of beer nerds on my team,” she says. She looks to them for suggestions and recommendations of products they’re excited about. “As I am not [out] in the world drinking beer,” she says, “my team’s input is valuable to me.”

Approach restaurant meals with a back-of-house mentality.

Business lunches and dinners, while great opportunities to connect with customers or coworkers, can be land mines for those with AI conditions. Melissa Hoffman, a regional director for SevenFifty, an online platform for the beverage alcohol trade (and parent company of SevenFifty Daily), has been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and degenerative inflammatory arthritis. In the past, she worked as a sommelier and wine director, and she’s been able to use her hospitality experience to ensure that she gets meals that keep her AI dietary protocol on track. “I have a greater understanding, with my industry background, of how a kitchen works, and how things are established throughout the prep hours,” she says. “A lot of dishes tend to be fully composed and preprepped.” Hoffman does her best to avoid marinated foods because the marinades often contain symptom-triggering ingredients like soy or nightshades. “If something’s been marinated, the chances that the restaurant will have a piece of fish or protein that hasn’t been marinated are slim.”

Staehling, Thorn, and Hoffman all agree that reviewing menus beforehand is vital. Hoffman notes that properly communicating with a restaurant team is also important. One of the strategies she finds the most useful, which may be challenging for those who haven’t worked in the industry, is talking to servers and chefs in such a way as to get what she needs. “All too often, people with dietary limitations tell people [at restaurants] what they can’t eat, which isn’t helpful to a culinary team,” she says. “They need to know what you can eat.” She advises making simple, clear requests, such as “I see that you’ve got X on the menu—is it possible to do it with salt, pepper, and olive oil?”

Accept temptation (to a certain point).

Surprisingly, food isn’t a significant temptation for Staehling, Thorn, or Hoffman. “The consequences are too great,” Thorn explains. Drinks, though, are another story. Along with the pleasure of tasting something delicious, the camaraderie and socializing of drinking culture make for special occasions that may inspire them to deviate from their dietary protocol. Is it worth it to indulge in alcohol on occasion? Hoffman says yes. “I went a long time before I made these concessions,” she says. “My philosophy is that you have to live a little. Not all the time, but every now and then when something comes up and it’s worth it, you have to let yourself have that. It’s definitely a stretch from the way I used to think; in the beginning [I wouldn’t drink at all]. But that was an unrealistic [approach], and I feel that as long as I am doing the right thing 90 percent of the time, there’s an allotment [for drinking].”

All three women have gained control over their conditions, and they’re turning their attention outward now and using their knowledge and personal experience to effect change in the industry. In addition to the suggestions mentioned above, they integrate wellness activities like yoga, meditation, and simply getting enough sleep into their daily routines—and they advocate self-care to colleagues. Whether helping guests with similar conditions successfully navigate a menu, or providing mentorship to colleagues who’ve been diagnosed with AI disorders, they’re bringing their expertise to their jobs and creating a new dialogue in the industry about AI disorders and overall health and wellness.

Shana Clarke is a freelance wine writer based in New York City and a PR/Marketing consultant for the wine and restaurant industries. You can often find her drinking BYOB Champagne at dim sum brunch. Follow her on Instagram or visit www.shanaspeakswine.com.

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