Steve Palmer knows he would be dead if his fellow restaurant people hadn't staged an intervention about his substance abuse. Now 18 years sober, the Charleston-based restaurateur is a newly-minted author with his memoir, Say Grace, a brand-new husband and stepfather, and the co-founder—along with Charleston hospitality icon Mickey Bakst—of Ben's Friends, a recovery group for people in the industry.
"There's a lot of issues that we have in the business and they're getting addressed," he says, "but there are a lot of loving, really caring souls. Restaurant people are the best people."
Palmer sat down for an open-hearted conversation about what it takes to get sober when you work in hospitality—and what people in the industry can do to support one another and move forward.
These interview excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity. You can hear the full interview on the Communal Table podcast.
It's not the industry's fault, but the industry hasn't always helped.
I reject the notion that the industry made me or anyone an alcoholic. It's a disease, it's genetic, I have a gene in my body that you maybe don't have. There's a lot of talk about how that gets woken up. For me, it was the death of my father at 10 years old. Certainly when I entered the industry in 1989, it was a playground for alcohol and drugs.
I believe that the industry has accepted this behavior. Do I think that they have not only accepted it, celebrated it? Yes.
There's this incredible camaraderie that already exists in a restaurant. Eighteen hours a day, 100 miles an hour, you're serving 300 guests, and at the end of the night, you're all jacked up on adrenalin. It's not 5:00 in the afternoon, it's midnight. You all go out and drink together, and that is a wonderfully bonding time. And I always say this, alcohol is not bad. It was bad for me, and we sell it every night. This is not a crusade about alcohol, but our industry has done a lot to support addiction. I would probably say in the last five years, maybe less, we're starting to say, Well, wait a minute, people we care about are dying.
Sobriety can be lonely.
When I first got sober, it was very lonely in the industry. It was 18 years ago, and I didn't know anyone in the business who didn't drink. I certainly didn't know anybody in recovery who was actively wanting to stay in the business. I watched a few people get sober and they were told by the recovery community, "You need to get out of the restaurant business, because it's a terrible situation for you."
Thankfully, I found a mentor—who was not in the industry but believed in the power of recovery—who said, "Listen, you love this. If you're willing to do the work, you can stay in this industry and stay sober."
I was six weeks sober when I went to a restaurant opening. And the best analogy is when you see a baby that's crying and they're just not comfortable in their skin. That's what new sobriety feels like. They don't know why they're unhappy, it just doesn't feel good. I walked into this opening, and literally, the whole room stopped. I wasn't making it up. Everybody kind of turned, and no one was trying to be unkind. They just didn't know what to do. Whoa, sober in the restaurant business? What is that?
We're not trying to spoil the party for anyone else.
I think if you talk to most sober people, it's less about, look at me, pat me on the back, and more that we just want to feel included. We don't want to feel like we're on the outside. We're not judging people that are drinking. We just don't want to feel like we're not part of the cool kids club.
Those first couple years, I would see friends, and there was no malice, but they didn't know what to say. The worst thing you can do to a person who's not drinking is ask them if they're okay with the fact that you are. That just brings a spotlight to it. In early recovery, I still wanted to feel a part of the community. I'm making a choice, which I inherently believe is the best choice I could possibly make, and I don't want to feel like I'm an outsider because of it.
Even in my dating life it was, "Is it going to bother you if I drink?" It's going to bother me if you don't drink. Go ahead. If you don't drink because of me—I want you to do whatever you're going to do,
The industry needs you to stick around.
For years now we've been talking about how short-staffed the industry is. We need more people who want to work in our business, not less. We need people going to yoga classes and taking care of themselves so they can have some longevity in the business. We've all seen these big, famous chefs announcing that they're walking away from restaurants or walking away but staying in the food industry on some other level. I'm always sad when I see that, because we need you. But we need those people to be healthy and whole, and an example for the generation behind us that's coming up.
Your life doesn't have to be three DUIs, rehabs, train-wreck stuff. You don't have to go down that road if you don't want to. It's not synonymous with longevity in our business.
You can't always tell when someone is suffering, and they probably won't tell you.
When you get sober, the veil gets removed. And I say this all the time. You could put me in a room with 100 people that are drinking, and I'm not judging, but I'm going to know the ones that have the problem because the light has gone out in their eyes, and there's a sadness about the way they're conducting themselves.
But Ben Murray was the fun guy in the room. He was Dean Martin in the Rat Pack. He always had a cocktail and a joke and was very witty. We were opening this restaurant, and Ben had come from Atlanta, so we were putting him up in a hotel. There were three sober chefs in the kitchen on opening night that would have done anything in the world if Ben would have said something. All he would have had to say is, "I'm struggling." They would have stopped everything they were doing, "Tell us what you need."
When I got the call that he had shot himself in the hotel room that we were putting him up in, and then I called his mom, his mom said, "Well, he's been in and out of detox six times." We had no idea. That suffering in silence was at that time the culture of our business—that's weak if you need help. Keep partying and keep showing up for work. It's probably also society at large.
It takes community to get and stay sober.
Ben's family is still not okay. It's been three and a half years, and they can't talk about him, because nobody knew. He would get out of detox, didn't want to go to meetings, would say, "No, I'm good, Mom. I got it this time." Addiction is not something to do alone. Trying to get sober and isolating because of it is the absolute worst thing you should do. This is a guy I'd known 25 years. I didn't even know he had been suffering. I think about that all the time. We started Ben's Friends because of that, because we had to have something where people know it's okay.
Push past the awkwardness.
Have the conversation, knowing that you may not get the outcome you want. They might be mad. I do believe if you come from a place of love and care and concern, like, "Hey, I'm really concerned about your drinking," instead of a place of judgment, "You're drinking too much," you might be the first person that plants the seed, and then the second person says, and so that by the third person hopefully, or the second, they go, "You know what? A lot of people that care about me are saying I have a problem. Maybe I need to look at it."
It's that uncomfortable space. Chances are, you might have been drinking with this person. You can be, in a room full of 100 people drinking. 100 people don't have a drinking problem, but the 10 that do need our attention. It's hard when you might have been having the drink with them.
I say to people, you've got to be willing to let people help. The cool thing about people in recovery is that they don't want anything from you except to help. It helps me to work with another alcoholic. It's part of the positive cycle. Let people help, because they want to. You would be shocked at how many people in recovery want nothing more than to see you recover.
You can offer solidarity and options.
In new sobriety, you literally are relearning everything. Getting on an airplane and not ordering a bloody mary, for me. Going on a road trip and not smoking pot. It's really like learning to live. Sometimes just knowing "I'm at this table, but I'm not alone" can change the entire evening for somebody.
Sobriety is trendy, and I love it. I'm blessed and fortunate that I get to travel a lot. I was just in San Francisco. I say, "Hey, I'm a non-drinking person," and there's not this weird pause anymore. There's this, "Well we have this great menu," and there's an excitement. I just want to stand up and applaud the entire industry and say, "Thank you."
It's feeling included, and I say this to other restaurant owners, I'll pay, as a sober person, $10, $11, $12, if you make it interesting. It's a revenue source. It's good business, but I love that they're so much more thoughtful. I was at a restaurant where they brought a flight of non-alcoholic drinks. And I was blown away.
It takes work.
There are a lot of avenues to recovery. At Ben's Friends, we certainly don't say you have to go to 12-step meetings. We do say, "One hour a week is probably not going to fix you." And we're very upfront saying that we're a bridge to sobriety. We're going to love you, we're going to help you find the other avenues, but one hour a week is not going to fix. We can laugh at ourselves, which is healthy medicine. We say, "You didn't drink one hour a week, did you?" One hour a week of therapy is probably not going to do the trick.
There is so much more life ahead—yes, in the industry.
I say this all the time, the fear at the end of the drinking has killed more people. That moment of, we call it incomprehensible demoralization where you realize you can't live with alcohol and you can't live without it. And you can live without it, but the story in your head is "What will my life be?"
Think about our industry. What will I do? I won't have a social life, I won't be able to date, I won't be able to do the things. How will I live?
When people say that it sounds boring, I say, "Do I look bored? Because I don't feel bored." I got sober to have more of a life, not to have less of a life. I'm doing every single thing, concerts, travel, food, food and wine events. I'm doing everything I did and more. Because the truth is, if drinking for me were I'm having less of a life, I would probably go drink again, even knowing it would kill me. I haven't seen sobriety as less than. I've seen sobriety as all these other doors open for me. People are always like, "How do you do what you do?" I'm like, "Well, when you stop drinking and you get up at 6:00 in the morning, you've got all kinds of energy."
There's help, no matter your financial situation.
There are surprisingly a lot of state and county funded rehabilitation services. There's a lot of outpatient pay-as-you-go. With our Ben's Friends chapters, when we launch in a city, we really encourage the chairs of that city, to get connected to the mental health community. When somebody's physically hooked on something that could kill them while they're withdrawing, we need to get them into a facility at least to get through that danger period. You need to go check yourself in.
You're talking about a life and death issue. Before I went to rehab, I cold-turkeyed it for the last 48 hours. It was sweats, curled up in a ball on the floor, Ninja Turtles flying out of the walls. I recently had a friend who was a stage-four alcoholic, which means you're physically addicted. He went cold turkey. It was his third attempt, and he said, "I'm going to get sober this time," and he had seizures, and he died just from withdrawing from alcohol. There becomes a point at which, we'll find you another job. This is about whether you want to live or not.
The help is there. Call me, go to bensfriendshope.com. We'll find a facility for you.