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Mickey Bakst (sober since 1982) is co-founder of Ben’s Friends, a community for food-and-beverage workers seeking sobriety.

Pandemic sparks new growth for Ben’s Friends, an industry-specific community for those seeking sobriety

Workers showing up drunk? Don’t fire them, says co-founder Mickey Bakst

Mickey Bakst, the former general manager Charleston Grill in South Carolina, has a message about how employers should handle that employee who comes to work drunk.

“It used to be, when someone comes to work drunk, you throw them out, you fire them. You throw them the hell out,” said Bakst. “But we need to start asking ourselves, how can we help these people.”

Now, he said, employers can’t afford to lose these people. And now, there is a support system that can help.

Bakst (sober since 1982) is co-founder of Ben’s Friends, a community for food-and-beverage workers seeking sobriety. Bakst founded the group in 2016 with co-founder Steve Palmer (sober since 2001), who also founded Indigo Road Hospitality Group.

And it began after a chef who worked for Palmer, Ben Murray, drank himself to death, though those who worked closest to him had no idea he had a problem.

For Bakst and Palmer, it was an all too familiar scenario and they said enough was enough. They launched the group to create a support system for restaurant people struggling with addiction issues, but also to help change the culture in an industry that for so long turned a blind eye to alcohol and drug abuse within its own ranks. 

Ben’s Friends is not a 12-step program, like Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA. Bakst likes to describe it as a “gateway drug to AA,” because they believe in the program. “It saved my life,” said Bakst.

But a 25-year-old server or bartender today may not feel at home in an AA meeting, filled with people from other industries who don’t understand the unique lifestyle of those who work in restaurants and bars: the long hours and late nights, working weekends and holidays, missing loved ones’ birthdays or anniversaries, and the party-every-night atmosphere, said Bakst.

Prior to the pandemic, Ben’s Friends had grown to a handful of chapters. But when the pandemic shutdown hit the restaurant industry in March 2020, Ben’s Friends took to Zoom, opening up a national platform. 

And, for many in the industry, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“The first six months [of the pandemic] were painful because we saw people sitting in their apartments, drinking day and night, who didn’t know where they were going to get the money to pay rent. They didn’t know what was happening, like everybody. And they were scared,” said Bakst. “But we saw such an influx of F&B people coming to Ben’s Friends on Zoom, which has been a Godsend.” 

Now the group has about 20 chapters with live meetings, and it is continuing to grow across the country — though anyone in the industry can join in the national Zoom conversations, which can be found at bensfriendshope.com.

And Ben’s Friends is looking to grow. “We want to start chapters wherever there’s two sober people and a restaurant willing to house them,” he said.

At the National Restaurant Association show, Bakst and Palmer had a message for employers:

First, tell your employees about Ben’s Friends, said Bakst. Let them know there’s an organization geared specifically for F&B people.

Secondly, learn how to talk to your employees who are struggling, he said. If you’re seeing signs that a worker might be dealing with alcohol or drug issues, don’t just throw them out. Ask what’s going on and how you can help.

And, if you don’t know how to have that conversation, Ben’s Friends can give you the tools to have that dialogue.

Bakst said he is happy to see employers offering more benefits to workers, including mental health support. But even more important is offering workers “a life,” including paying people properly. 

“Kids today want a life,” he said. “They’re not interested in a 401K. They want a life.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

TAGS: Workforce
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