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After the passing of culinary legend Anthony Bourdain, substance and alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry became a hot topic…and the conversations continue. According to SAMHSA, those who work in the world of hospitality have some of the highest rates of substance and alcohol abuse.

Today, restaurants are re-evaluating their practices, policies, and overall attitudes towards sobriety. Employees are examining their own drinking habits. And the industry as a whole has banded together. The ultimate goal? Finding real solutions to reduce substance and alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry.

Facing Alcohol Abuse in the Restaurant Industry

A sober bartender? It may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s more common than you think. Hosts of Pass The Bar podcast sat down to find out how a bartender named Just has maintained 7 years of sobriety – while working as a bartender.  

We’ll break down the different tactics that helped Justin on his path to sobriety. And we used his insight to provide ways that owners and managers can do their part in overcoming alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry.

Justin’s Advice: Fill Time with New Hobbies

When drinking becomes a habit, it’s a difficult one to break. Filling time is a major challenge for individuals combating alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry. But Justin found that focused activities were a good distraction to keep his mind off drinking.

“I would read,” he shared. “I would read a lot. And I wouldn’t read necessarily inspirational stuff. But I would just read to occupy my time.”

How to Show Support: Organize Team-Building Activities Outside of Work

Combating alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry calls for creative solutions – like organizing team activities that can help your staff not only bond, but also give them something else to do in between shifts besides drink. Need some ideas? How about:

Setting Up a Fitness Challenge: Restaurant staff members tend to be competitive. So why not focus that energy on their wellness? Set up a staff fitness challenge, like training for a 5K or participating in the Whole 30 challenge. Giving your entire team a fitness goal is a great way to fuel their competitive juices while combating alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry. And Justin can also attest that it works: “Now, I go to the gym,” he says. “…It just makes me feel right upstairs.”

Hosting a Training Session: Offer your employees a chance to expand their skillset with training sessions that focus on different aspects of your restaurant. You could offer management courses, menu tastings, etc. And keep them open to all team members who may want to explore different fields in the same industry. BONUS: While combating alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry, you’re also providing your staff with skills that could help them improve your business.

Justin’s Advice: Be Honest with Yourself

According to Justin, honesty really is the best policy when it comes to staying sober. “You would have to do maintenance,” he shares. “You would have to be really honest with not only friends, but more importantly, most importantly, with yourself.”

That honesty makes it easier to determine your own risks and set boundaries as one combats alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry. Because knowing your own limits can help you make better decisions for yourself.

“You’d have to be like, ‘Okay, let me go out tonight. What are the chances that I’m going to drink if I go out tonight?’ And for me, if it was 1%, then all right. I’m not going out. Why risk it? So I had to be honest with myself.”

How to Show Support: Be Honest with Your Employees!

Alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry has been swept under the rug for years. And now that the issues have come to light, honesty is what can help save your employees and keep them accountable as they work on their own recovery.

As an owner or manager, it’s important to support employees by being honest with them. And it’s simpler than you may think. Just follow these steps:

  1. Learn how to recognize the signs: Alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry can easily go under the radar for a while, since drinking is so normalized. However, it’s important that owners and managers learn how to recognize the signs so they can detect a problem with an employee before it becomes too late.
  2. Work with your employee on a solution: When you see that an employee may have a problem, sit down and discuss the issue in private. Then, work on a game plan to help them correct it.
  3. Check in regularly: Combating alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry is an ongoing battle, so it’s going to take more than one check-in to make sure your team member gets the help they need. Schedule regular meetings with your employee to see how they are doing and how you can continue supporting them. 

Justin’s Advice: Don’t Fear the Stigma

Usually after a shift, most bartenders, servers, and line cooks find themselves going out together to take the edge off work. This presents a challenge for a social person trying to recover from alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry.

But according to Justin, the key was learning to embrace the idea that you’re a little different. (after all, you’re combating alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry). Justin found pride and acceptance in his sobriety:  

“When you start getting sober and you start thinking like, ‘Okay, you know what, I am a weirdo…And I don’t care!’ And in a great way…in the best of ways…because I know who I am.”

How to Show Support: Do Your Part to Erase the Stigma

Part of the reason alcohol in the restaurant industry prevailed for so long was because of the stigma related to addiction. Bartenders feared losing their jobs thinking: how can you serve something you can’t even be around? Fortunately, as the issues with alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry started coming to light, more and more people became more comfortable sharing their experiences.

However, there’s still room to grow. And managers and owners learned that they can play a pivotal role in erasing the stigma of alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry. Here are some solutions that can help:

  • Start offering mocktails on the menu: Offering sophisticated, alcohol-free beverages is a way to help normalize sober lifestyles. And as a bonus, mocktails are growing trend in the industry (meaning your customers want some options, too).
  • Set up alcohol-free events for your staff: Most restaurant owners show staff appreciation with parties featuring an open bar. Instead, focus on team-building events that are alcohol-free, but still just as fun (like kickball tournaments, a high-ropes course, or even volunteering for your community).
  • Eliminate the free shift drink: Shift drinks may seem like a rite of passage after a long day of work, but they also ostracize staff members trying to recover from alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry. And according to Modern Restaurant Management, getting rid of the shift drink is already a movement in the making.

Bottom Line: The Transition is Worth It

Making changes can be difficult. Especially if it’s being done to accommodate someone else. But the improvements you make for your staff will benefit your business. Because happy employees make better workers. And there’s nothing happier than that feeling of accomplishment as you conquer alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry. Just ask Justin.

“You start discovering who you are, who you truly are. And it’s a beautiful transformation, man. It’s unlike anything else. It’s amazing getting to know who you truly are. It’s fantastic.”

Be part of that positive change for your employees. A few small tweaks could go a long way to help reduce alcohol abuse in the restaurant industry. It all starts within your own four walls…