At first blush, pouring bourbon to benefit people struggling with substance abuse and addiction seems oddly counter-intuitive, like burning tires to raise money for combating climate change.
Yet Charleston Grill general manager Mickey Bakst, co-founder of Ben’s Friends, points out that alcohol isn’t the enemy.
“None of us is opposed to liquor,” Bakst says. “Every single person in this industry makes their money selling liquor.”
As Bakst sees it, Woodford Reserve’s sponsorship of a Sept. 17 tasting at The Cedar Room is tantamount to tobacco producers underwriting lung cancer research. While he recognizes that the event is an opportunity for the distillery to burnish its image, he says “we need the money” to support Ben’s Friends continued expansion.
For the Tuesday night tasting, featuring half a dozen different whiskeys bearing the Woodford Reserve label, The Cedar Room will be furnished with a “cocktail learning station,” silent auction tables and Woodford Reserve displays. Chefs including Jeremiah Bacon (The Macintosh, Oask Steakhouse); Bob Cook (Edmund’s Oast); Jacques Larson (Wild Olive, The Obstinate Daughter); and Raleigh’s Scott Crawford are preparing the accompanying snacks.
But at 11 a.m. Sundays, The Cedar Room is set up for weekly meetings of Ben’s Friends’ Charleston chapter. Bakst and Steve Palmer of The Indigo Road in 2016 created the support group specifically for fellow members of the food-and-beverage community as a supplement to Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Our goal is to get everybody into AA. Nobody’s going to get sober going to one meeting a week,” Bakst says. “Ben’s Friends is that bonding time with others in the industry, but we are 100 percent behind AA. We’re literally walking these kids into meetings.”
The programs are complementary, he continues:
“I’ve been in AA for 36 years, and I’ve had great meetings and great relationships and community,” Bakst says. “But nothing has ever felt so cohesive as being in a room with 26 food-and-bev people. They know what it’s like to get out of work at 11, 12, 1 and have nowhere to go.”
Ben’s Friends now has meetings in nine cities across the country. “I truly believe we are on the verge of starting a nationwide organization,” Bakst says.
All of the proceeds from the Sept. 17 event will be used to help Ben’s Friends gain a foothold in additional cities. Bakst says getting a meeting started is an elaborate process.
First, a paid Ben’s Friends screener has to determine a person interested in forming a chapter has been sober for at least three years and is actively involved in AA. Additionally, he or she needs to have secured commitments from two co-leaders.
“When our screener find someone she likes, she passes it on to me, and then begins the dance,” Bakst says. “We bring them to Charleston for two days to sit with Steve and myself and talk philosophy, and then they come to one of our meetings.”
Once the partnership is finalized, Bakst or Palmer travels to the new Ben’s Friends city to address its resident restaurant association and lead the first meeting.
Although none of the leaders are paid, Bakst and Palmer included, Bakst says expansion costs include ads and press releases promoting a new chapter’s launch, as well as the screener’s $1,000 monthly salary.
“We’re starting slowly, building a solid foundation, but Steve and I want this to go on and on,” Bakst says.