For years, it went like this: a high-energy, pressurized shift moving from tables to the bar to the kitchen, serving, smiling, keeping track of a happy kind of chaos.
Then came the “end of shift” drink, gratis. A second, for half-price. Co-workers bought for each other, the bartender’s wrist loosened, and somehow, Hilary Boyce made it home.
Until the night she didn’t. She was pulled over for a DUI and spent the night in jail.
That was the start of Boyce’s effort to change how she dealt with the culture familiar to many people in the food and beverage industry. It’s also the center of Ben’s Friends, a national community of restaurant and bar professionals focused on recovery. Not a 12-step program, but more of a fellowship, sharing experiences and struggles and lending support publicly in order to change a strong cultural norm.
So while the coronavirus pandemic has devastated the food and beverage industry, forcing many restaurants to close and others to reinvent how they serve customers, Ben’s Friends is strengthening the people who once worked, and still work, in them in COVID-19 times and whatever comes next.
“The bonds have only gotten stronger as we wrestle with what is going on right now,” said Boyce, 46, who lives in Edmonds. “There is so much fear of the unknown and changes in the restaurant industry. The support means a lot.
“We just keep showing up for each other and bring the constant changes to the table and process them with each other.”
A few weeks ago, the women of the Seattle and Portland outposts of Ben’s Friends — they call themselves “Ben’s Femmes” — chose to move beyond Zoom meetings and spent a socially distanced weekend of fellowship at the So’Wester Historic Lodge and Vintage Travel Trailer Resort in Seaview, where they shared stories of sexual harassment, sexism and their struggles with sobriety.
“We all know that pressure of the giving, giving, giving, and then the after-shift drink,” Boyce said. “You have the pressure, and you look for that reward.
“And now we’re learning to make a human connection without the crutch of alcohol.”
A typical “girls weekend,” she said, looks like mimosas during the day and wine at night. But this was “dogs, charcuterie boards, apple pie and masked talks around the campfire.” (Really good charcuterie boards, she added; one member makes her own cheese.)
Boyce works at Fire and the Feast in Edmonds — located in the same space where she was working when she was drinking. It all makes a certain kind of sense.
Steve Palmer, of the Charleston, South Carolina-based Indigo Road Hospitality Group, co-founded Ben’s Friends in memory of his friend, Ben Murray. In 1995, Murray was helping Palmer open a restaurant when he stopped showing up and answering his phone. He had killed himself in a hotel room after years of struggling with addiction.
The night of the restaurant opening, the stricken staff had what was Ben’s Friends’ unofficial first meeting.
“The sad thing to me is that there were three chefs in the kitchen in recovery,” Palmer remembered. Any one of them would have dropped everything to help Ben, he said.
The group started in 2016, but after chef, author and TV star Anthony Bourdain killed himself in 2018, “I’m telling you, it was overnight,” Palmer said. “We went from one city to nine pretty quickly, and now we’re at 14 cities with seven more lined up.”
A 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that the food-service and hospitality industry has the highest rate of substance-use disorders and the third-highest rate of heavy-alcohol use of all employment sectors.
But Palmer “always stops short” of saying the restaurant industry “makes you an alcoholic. You either have the gene or you don’t.”
There are the late nights, though, the adrenaline-fueled behavior. A Saturday night at 8 p.m. in a good restaurant, Palmer said, is “pretty awesome.”
But then you get off work, wired, go to the bar with your co-workers, and drink.
“It adds to this level of community, but it also adds this dysfunctional level of acceptance,” Palmer said. “All of the elements of the industry lend itself to that behavior.”
While Ben’s Friends is open to men (there are Zoom meetings just for them) the restaurant culture can be even harder for women, who endure sexism — be it jokes or intentional — and on-the-job harassment from both their co-workers and customers.
“It’s real,” Boyce said. “We’re still not equal. They are getting better about it, but there are jokes that are like, ‘Really?‘
“As much as we have progressed, it’s still there.”
But so, too, are the women in her group, the people she can reach out to for support and an ear.
“I know I can text, call at any hour any one of those gals on that trip. They are lifelines.”
Palmer recalled seeing the Seattle and Portland women on a recent Zoom call, sitting in a camping trailer together. He started to cry.
“There is so much hope in our industry in these women,” he said. “They are our future. Healthy, mentally safe, sane people who are seeking to be better versions of themselves and sharing it with other people.
“This is what Ben’s Friends is doing,” he said. “There is nothing I am ever going to do in my life that is as important as this.”