Industry Issues

Thriving While Sober in the Booze Industry

Drinks professionals weigh in on their recovery from alcoholism and how they’re charting a new course

sommeliers pouring shots for customers and himself
Illustration by María Hergueta.

It’s July 2014 and Giuseppe González, celebrated bartender and owner of Manhattan’s swank Suffolk Arms, is in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. It’s his birthday weekend. A rock-star partier, González also has type 1 diabetes, and his doctor has just told him he needs to quit drinking—or else. But at this weeklong bacchanalia, his doctor’s advice is far from his mind. Instead, he heads to a party and ends up in the bathroom with a bag of blow. His cell phone rings.

“It’s my mom, calling to wish me happy birthday,” González says. “She hears me and she’s like, ‘Joey, are you all right?’ and I say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” González got off the phone with his mom and called a friend to ask for help. His friend replied, “I’ve been waiting for this call for a while, bro.”

The next day, González went to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He’s been sober ever since. That’s not to say it has been easy. “Alcoholism is chronic—it never goes away. There’s never gonna be a day that goes by that I think I have control over it,” says Gonzalez, who, three years later, attends an AA meeting every morning.  

González has plenty of company. People who work in the food and beverage industry are around alcohol daily and are often expected to drink it. Temptation is everywhere. As González puts it, “I had easy access to some of the best spirits—and some of the best bartenders in the country were my best friends.” In such circumstances, it’s easy to overindulge. Statistics bear this out: The hospitality industry is the profession with the highest rate of substance abuse, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Recently, though, a handful of high-profile bartenders, chefs, general managers, and others in the industry have been speaking out about their struggles with alcohol abuse—and their newfound sobriety. Sean Brock, chef at Husk, McCrady’s, and Minero in Charleston, South Carolina, went to rehab last January and spoke about the pleasures of not drinking in a recent article for the New York Times. A year ago, Jack McGarry, co-owner of New York City hotspots Dead Rabbit and BlackTail, stopped drinking after a close call that landed him in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. And Mickey Bakst, general manager of the Charleston Grill in South Carolina, who’s been sober for 35 years, is outspoken about his alcoholism. “I have an extraordinarily blessed career, all due to the fact that I got sober,” he says. Though not all recovering alcoholics have stayed in the industry, many have—and they say their careers are more successful than ever. The stigma of being a drinks professional with alcoholism is seemingly starting to disappear.

Thriving While Sober

Eric Nelson was a veteran bartender at Portland, Oregon, hotspots like Pok-Pok, Laurelhurst Market, and Trifecta before he hit rock bottom. He had tried to stop drinking several times but never succeeded. “I was on this path of not being able to fix anything,” Nelson says. “I was becoming a bad person. I kind of said to myself, ‘It’s time to stop.’” He put a blast out on Facebook, saying, “I’m going to rehab. Please help.” Two friends helped find him a scholarship to a 45-day program at the Klean Treatment Center in Long Beach, Washington. “So I spent time doing yoga, doing a shit-ton of reading—doing the privileged person’s rehab,” Nelson says. “I did a lot of self-searching.”

When Nelson left rehab, he spent some time driving trucks for a specialty foods company. Eventually, he tried to get back into bartending, but no one in Portland would take a chance on him. No one, that is, except Kyle Webster, co-owner—with his wife Naomi Pomeroy—of Expatriate. “I wanted to get back in and make a splash in a big way to prove I could still do it,” says Nelson, who notes that he already had personal friendships with Webster and Pomeroy. And that’s exactly what he did: Expatriate’s bar program is considered one of the best in Portland—and it has gained national attention. Says Nelson, “I had my fingers in all of those drinks, with Kyle.”

Nelson now tends bar at Suttle Lake Lodge, near Sisters, Oregon, and at a pop-up bar called Shipwreck, in Portland. He firmly believes that by not drinking he has actually become a better bartender. “After a while, when you drink as much as I did, you stop tasting things,” he says, noting that he experiences flavors more intensely these days. “I still taste every single drink that I put out,” Nelson says. “I just spit it out. My thing is—I don’t ever want to be drunk again. I’m a binge drinker, and I know that once I start, I won’t stop.”

González, too, says that he functions at a much higher level as a sober owner and bartender. “When I was drinking, I hated bartending, guests, the industry,” he says. “I didn’t find joy in my work. I was doing my job because it was a job. Now that I’m sober, goddamn it, I love my job! I love everything about it. I’m around great people. My guests—they’re great. My staff is great. The opportunities that come up are great. [It] would be an act of insanity to start drinking again.”

Charleston Grill’s Bakst, sober for 35 years this December, is known for his award-winning wine list. He’s an avid student of wine varieties and wine regions but never samples the wines he selects—Bakst relies on his staff of sommeliers to do all tastings. But, he says, “I sell more wine than anybody at the restaurant.” For Bakst, the decision not to take even one sip comes down to a simple question: Do I want to live or do I want to die? “I sort of love my wife and she wants me around,” he jokes. “I count on others who are intelligent about wine. I listen to my customers about wine.”

Moderation: The Key to Success?

Chronic overindulgence is a serious hazard of working in the wine and spirits industry—it can eventually lead to health problems whether or not one is a full-blown alcoholic. Drinking less, in a more mindful way, is what keeps some people happy and productive at work.

Before becoming a wine writer, Cathrine Todd worked as a sales rep for wine distributors and was often pressured to drink on the job. In one instance, she recalls visiting a restaurant early in the day with a senior female colleague. Even though they were there to sell wine, the restaurant’s male beverage buyer offered them gin and tonics. When Todd politely declined, he made a fuss, telling her he expected to drink with his reps. Later, Todd’s colleague reinforced the message, saying that Todd was expected to drink when she called on the account. “She eventually told my boss that I was not ‘taking care’ of this account properly,” Todd says, noting that she was able to transfer the account to someone else.

People who are in retail, distribution, and sales are silently battling this kind of pressure,” Todd says. “They’re afraid they’re going to get a bad name in the business—afraid they will get blackballed.” Now, as a freelance writer who blogs at Dame Wine, Todd feels less pressure to drink. And she exercises restraint when she’s on press trips or at industry events, setting herself a one-glass-per-day limit. “I just spit everything out during the day,” she says. “That way, at the end of the night, if you want to drink something, then you know you’re good and you won’t have problems sleeping.”

For Rachael Lowe, the beverage director at Spiaggia in Chicago, the pleasure of wine has everything to do with drinking it in moderation. Like Todd, she looks forward to her thoughtful glass of wine at night,” which means being conscientious about her intake during the day. “There are days when I have five appointments in a row,” she says.It’s imperative to spit. If you didn’t spit, you’d be wasted!”

At fine wine importer and marketing agency Folio Fine Wine Partners, moderation is the stated professional policy, according to Rebecca Hopkins, the vice president of communications. Founder Michael Mondavi has implemented policies to encourage responsible drinking, such as issuing employees breathalyzers, which they’re expected to use while on company time at tasting appointments and client dinners. If employees’ blood alcohol level is .04 or higher, they’re told to wait 30 minutes and test it again. If it’s still that high, they can take a taxi home and then back to pick up their car in the morning. “You submit the receipts and they’re paid—no questions,” Hopkins says. “However, if you start submitting receipts every couple of weeks, there’s a conversation about whether you need to be here doing this job.” And if an employee is issued more than one DUI, that person is fired.

Navigating Recovery in the Industry

In 2013, Ted Munat, the author of West Coast Libations, was working as an event planner for the Seattle-based cachaça company Novo Fogo when he realized he was an alcoholic and quit drinking. “I shared that information with my employers and they supported me through it,” says Munat. He says they were surprised and impressed that he wanted to keep working for the company.

Munat attended both AA meetings and an outpatient rehab program, all while continuing to work at Novo Fogo. Though his day-to-day job didn’t require him to be around alcohol all the time, he was required to bartend at events like Portland Cocktail Week and Tales of the Cocktail. But because Munat was very open about his alcoholism—sharing it with friends and colleagues and on social media—people knew why he was abstaining and were careful not to pressure him to imbibe. In fact, Munat says he was pleasantly surprised by how supportive and admiring everybody was.

“It turned out that pretty much everybody else had worried about their own drinking or knew people who were alcoholics, and they were relieved that someone had broken the silence,” Munat says. As a result of his “coming out” as an alcoholic, colleagues would contact him for advice on how to quit drinking. To this day, even though he no longer works in the liquor industry, Munat receives emails from former colleagues and acquaintances who are struggling with alcoholism. His advice for those who know they need to change is to be open about it. “Realize that you fear people will judge you negatively,” Munat says, “but the fact is [that] people will admire you and even look up to you for your honesty and your courage.”

Shari Bayer, a publicist based in New York City who focuses on the culinary and hospitality industries, has been sober for 15 years. “I’m around it, I’m in it, it’s what I do for a living,” she says. Last year Bayer, whose go-to drink is seltzer water, got up the nerve to go to Tales of the Cocktail for the first time. “I kind of felt like a fly on the wall, watching,” she says. “A lot of people go to these events for the value of the food and drink. I’m there for work rather than overindulging.” Bayer says most people don’t even notice she’s not drinking. “I don’t make a big deal about it,” she says. “I just walk around with a bottle of water. Most people are more concerned with themselves!” 

Mark Willenbring, M.D., an addiction psychiatrist and founder of Alltyr, an outpatient addiction specialty clinic in St. Paul, concurs. “People think others care if they have a drink or not. No one really cares!” he says. At his clinic, Willenbring teaches patients “drink refusal skills,” telling them to have one or two stock phrases at the ready that don’t require further questioning.

Willenbring acknowledges the challenge of recovery in “high risk” environments like bars and restaurants, but he thinks the industry itself can do a lot more to protect its staff. “First,” he says, “stop the open bar at the end of shift. Just close the bar! It’s not a social event; it’s a job.” Second, educate the staff and observe them. Willenbring recommends that “if you see someone over-indulging, approach them and offer help. Make it an ethic that overindulgence is not approved of.” When he was the director of treatment research at the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Willenbring co-wrote a guide called Rethinking Drinking, which is free online. It includes a cocktail calculator, drinking tracker cards, worksheets to help you determine whether you have a problem with alcohol, and strategies for quitting.

Last October, realizing the urgent need for support within the industry, Charleston Grill’s Bakst and his friend Steve Palmer, the owner of the Indigo Road Group, founded an organization called Ben’s Friends. “We wanted to give young people in the industry who are struggling with alcohol a place they could go where there are people they respect and admire,” Bakst says. Ben’s Friends is named after Ben Murray, who worked as a line cook at Town Hall in Florence, South Carolina, and took his own life after a years-long struggle with alcoholism. Bakst sees the weekly meetings at Ben’s Friends as a stepping-stone to Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that many in the industry are initially resistant to join. “Both Steve and I have gotten sober through AA,” Bakst says. “So our goal is to try and take these young chefs, cooks, and bartenders and get them comfortable enough that they’re not afraid to walk into AA.”  

Suffolk Arms’s González also credits AA with helping him get sober, but he understands that others are skeptical of 12-step programs. His message to colleagues who are struggling with alcohol abuse is that sobriety is not a career ender. “You don’t need to drink to be part of this industry,” he says. “You don’t have to party. That doesn’t have to be your life.”

Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based journalist who writes about food, cannabis, sustainable agriculture, health, and travel for CivilEats.com, Fast Company, Food & Wine, Vogue, Portland Monthly, and the New York Times

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