Steve Palmer on Human Sustainability and Fighting Substance Abuse in the Restaurant Industry
"When I first started waiting tables, there was no internet, no social media, no Top Chef, no Food Network," Says Palmer, the Managing Partner of Charleston-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group. "Everybody in the restaurant would say, 'I'm just doing this until I get a real job.' I was working 14 hours a day; my feet hurt, my back hurt; it felt pretty real."
Three decades later with 20 restaurants and nearly 900 employees, his job feels more real—and important—than ever. In a presentation at the 2019 Southern Foodways Alliance Winter Symposium this weekend focused on the theme "Food is Work," Palmer chatted with Food & Wine Editor-in-Chief Hunter Lewis about the evolution of the family restaurant ideal, and what he's doing to shape it.
"The restaurant was the first place I felt unconditional love and acceptance," says Palmer, whose father died when he was 10-years-old, leaving him homeless at 14. "I feel a responsibility to leave the industry better than I found it."
For Palmer, that starts with taking care of his employees. "We talk so much about sustainability in this business—especially about fishing and farming—but we don't talk about human sustainability, and how people are going to thrive in our business."
Palmer's efforts at Indigo Road provide a glimpse of what a business centered on human sustainability could look like. His restaurant group offers interest-free loans to employees who need help making a down payment on their first homes. They also offer a tuition-match program for those going to culinary school or seeking a degree in hospitality management. But Palmers' real passion is for his employees' emotional and psychological well being.
"If we're going to solve the issues in our industry, we've got to start with mental health," says Palmer, who is 17-years sober. "A well-adjusted, healthy human being is better for our industry, period." Palmer stresses that you don't have to be a massive restaurant group to pull this off: Starting when his portfolio was just two restaurants deep, Palmer provided free access to mental health services to all his employees. "We spend every night taking care of other people; we're just now figuring out how to take care of ourselves."
Palmer has taken his efforts to the next level with the establishment of Ben's Friends, a substance abuse support group for the restaurant industry that's currently operating in seven cities across the U.S. Palmer named the organization after his close friend Ben Murray, a chef who killed himself after struggling with substance abuse. "Ben had come back in town to help us open a restaurant," Steve says. "On opening night, he was surrounded by five friends, who were all sober chefs. None of us knew that Ben was struggling; he apparently relapsed, and in the hotel room, he shot himself. It wasn't until I made the phone call to his mother that I learned he'd been suffering for decades." Palmer just opened the newest chapter of Ben's Friends in Portland, Oregon, this month, and he's not stopping there; his goal is to take it to all 50 states.
"I went to rehab 17 hears ago; when I got out, I didn't know anybody who stayed sober in the restaurant business," Palmers says. "These days, the conversation about sobriety is not only being accepted, it's being embraced—and it needs to continue."
To learn more about Ben's Friends and find out how you can start a chapter in your city, visit bensfriendshope.com.