New group aims to help San Francisco’s restaurant workers get sober

‘Drug use behavior is often overlooked because the industry is so stressful and challenging’

Sober living can seem impossible to some professionals in the food and beverage industry, where cultural pressures like the after-shift drink can make efforts to curb drug or alcohol habits feel like it’s at odds with one’s workplace.

But more and more, workers in San Francisco’s gastro scene are saying it doesn’t have to be that way.

“You can drink and be social in your job and actually get better tips or feel like you’re performing at a higher level,” said Gina Helvie, who lives in San Francisco and has worked in restaurants for nearly 20 years. “There is a culture where you can make a mistake and identifiable drug use behavior is overlooked because the industry is so stressful and challenging.”

In February, Helvie along with David James Welch, who also works in San Francisco restaurants, organized the first in-person gathering for San Francisco’s newly formed chapter of Ben’s Friends, a national community of food and hospitality workers who are seeking sobriety. The hope is to provide a network of support while giving individuals hope that they can continue in the line of work that they love.

The group had its first hour-long meeting on Sunday, Feb. 20 with around six attendees, still small in its early days. Waiters, cooks, bar staff, managers and plenty more who are sober or simply want to examine their relationship with substances are all invited to join the weekly meetings, which take place every Sunday at noon on the top floor of Che Fico Alimentari in the NoPa neighborhood, where Helvie works.

Now six years sober and in a job where she’s found support, Helvie wants to break the myth that recovery and hospitality can’t coexist.

“A lot of people suggest the restaurant industry isn’t for people in recovery. I was told I’d need to find a new job,” said Helvie. “Having that specific support has helped. When things got really hard, I had people who understood my business and my life.”

Before moving from Portland to San Francisco in 2021, Helvie dreamed of owning a restaurant after years of working in them. But becoming her own boss became a double-edged sword. There were suddenly little to no consequences for drinking on the job, and her struggle with alcoholism spiraled.

“I had been drinking heavily for many years in the restaurant industry. Once I was my own boss, no one was paying attention,” said Helvie, who has since sold her restaurant in Portland. “I had keys and was the first person there in the morning and no one knew I was drinking as soon as I got there in the morning and no one had the seniority to point out that what I was doing was inappropriate.”

It took several years in that position before drinking seriously impacted her performance and coworkers began to take notice. She tried to get sober but stumbled in a fast-paced, stressful environment where a drink or two after work is common.

“I told my business partner that I needed help and couldn’t stop. I went to a drug and alcohol counselor and he told me I’m an alcoholic,” said Helvie. “I thought he’s crazy. I just need to drink less. And I tried that, and it didn’t work.”

Helvie’s recovery journey has involved joining an alcoholics anonymous group and a 30-day rehabilitation program. But she said having a community of people who understood the work environment she loved and the struggles it came with allowed her to stay sober during the tumultuous pandemic.

“I needed to know there were women in their 30s who had lives and joy and normalcy and all the things I wanted, and that they didn’t drink,” said Helvie. “I found people like me in those meetings.”

Started in 2016, Ben’s Friends is not a 12-step program or another substance use disorder treatment program. Leaders describe it as a complement to treatment and therapy options and that it serves as a community space to meet other people looking to make similar lifestyle choices.

South Carolina-based restaurateurs Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst formed the initial group after losing a friend and chef named Ben to suicide. After Ben’s death, Palmer learned from talking to his mother that Ben had also struggled with substance use disorder, had been in and out of detox efforts, but had avoided going public with his struggles.

“I was so devastated by the idea that Ben was suffering and nobody knew it. I felt so strongly that I needed to do something,” said Palmer, who has been sober for more than 20 years.

Shortly after forming the first local Ben’s Friends group, renowned chef and food journalist Anthony Bourdain died by suicide. The loss reverberated throughout the food and beverage industry, Palmer said, and particularly among workers struggling with substances and mental illness.

Since then, Ben’s Friends has grown in a grassroots fashion across the country with local chapters forming in more than 15 cities including Atlanta, Austin, Charleston, Columbus, Detroit and San Francisco. There are meetings online at different times of day for irregular schedules, and specialty groups for men or women.

Even those outside of the recovery space say The City is overdue for more spaces to invite individuals to explore sobriety, especially after the pandemic slashed business in bars and restaurants, and as San Francisco attempts to unwind a spiraling overdose epidemic.

“We are pleased that Ben’s Friends has expanded to San Francisco,” said Laurie Thomas, Executive Director, Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “The past two years have been particularly challenging for the restaurant community with great uncertainty and reopening remains an ongoing process.”

Although the pandemic upended work for people like Helvie, she said there was a silver lining in that it allowed her to discover sobriety groups online. Now, as in-person gatherings and social events begin to come back with regularity, Helvie is eager to build up a community of professionals like herself who are seeking sobriety.

Anyone who is even thinking about changing behavior is welcome, she said, adding that she sees Ben’s Friends going hand-in-hand with the harm reduction practices taking place across The City to prevent and reverse overdoses.

“Recovery for me personally is sobriety, and that doesn’t work for all people. Recovery should be a person living their best possible life. If that means staying on methadone or only using once or twice a month, who am I to say what that should look like for them,” Helvie said.

“It’s more about creating awareness of if this substance is causing problems in my life and how can I alleviate those problems. To what extent can I do work to relieve that?”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

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