Action. It is easy to talk about but so hard to engage in. We all know quaint sayings about action. “Actions speak louder than words. If you don’t make things happen then things will happen to you. If you wait, all that happens is you get older.”
But change is hard. Fear of failure dogs us at every step and procrastination has us justify inaction in a thousand ways. Charlotte Bunch said “We do not need and never will have all the answers before we take action. It is through taking action that we can discover them.”
Ultimately, it is action that separates the dreamers from those that accomplish great things. This is a story about two local men that have taken action and the results are speaking for themselves.
There seems to be no corner of society where addiction doesn’t exact its toll, but statistics show that the food and beverage industry in particular suffers more than its fair share of devastation. Three years ago, after yet another young person in this industry named Ben Murray died as a result of addiction, two local leaders in the restaurant business decided something had to be done. Mickey Bakst, General Manager of Charleston Grill at Belmond and Steve Palmer, owner of Indigo Road Hospitality Group got busy and started a support group for local food and beverage workers.
“Alcohol is so readily available in our industry,” Mickey said. “It is everywhere in our work environment – we are completely surrounded by it all the time. We use it to create great experiences for others and when we see them laughing and having a good time we get the message that it is a good thing. But Steve and I got tired of seeing and hearing about young people destroying their lives with alcohol and other drugs. The day that Ben died was the day we said we have to stop talking about it and do something.”
They named the group “Ben’s Friends” in honor of the young chef who died. They hold weekly meetings each Sunday morning downtown. The results have been so significant that Ben’s Friends meetings are now held in 12 cities nationwide. At each meeting there is a preamble they read:
“Ben’s Friends is a coalition of sober food and beverage people committed to their sobriety in an industry filled with drugs, alcohol and stress. Each of us has found or is seeking sobriety and a way to deal with our careers and life in a sane and purposeful fashion. We are here to share together how we do it and provide those seeking sobriety with the tools and the community needed to find it. Our only purpose is to help each other find freedom from the bondage of addiction,” Mickey said.
Mickey and Steve are no strangers to what it takes to get and stay sober. “I have wonderful people around me, an amazing life and a bigger house than I need,” Mickey said. “But I would not be alive without the help I got from AA 37 years ago. I owe my life, my wife, my home and my job to AA. But I realize AA is not for everyone – we needed to find a way for young Food & Beverage workers that need help to get it. We will do anything to help them – link them up with counseling or treatment –whatever it takes. They need to understand that you can have a rich and rewarding career sober. The myth that alcohol and drugs are a necessary part of working in the restaurant business is just that – a myth. And we are doing everything we can to tear that myth down.”
“Together we, along with like minded people can create a marvelous life. And it’s working. At our first meeting we had 44 people show up saying ‘We’ve been waiting for this.’ The principle of ‘we can do together what we cannot do alone’ works,” Mickey said.
“We believe in AA and strongly suggest it to our members. We often personally take people to their first meeting. We work to demystify it for them and teach them to take what they can use from AA meetings and leave the rest. Many young people try AA a time or two, don’t get it and then refuse to go. But many of our group now have a couple of years sober and are active in AA. They openly say that Ben’s Friends saved their life by helping them bridge that gap,” Mickey said.
In preparing for this article, I attended a couple of Ben’s Friends Sunday morning meetings. There were a couple of dozen people there, many with some time sober and some with just a few days or weeks. The topic of the first meeting was staying away from the first drink or drug use no matter what, and the second meeting was about what one should do to stay sober when life seems like it is falling apart.
Everyone participated and many good insights were shared. There was Kathy who had tried to get sober for four years and couldn’t, but she just celebrated two years. She said that Ben’s Friends showed her that AA wasn’t the cult that she thought it was and consequently had saved her life. Others shared what they do to maintain their sanity through long shifts and difficult customers. There was also a woman present who flew in from Seattle just to attend the meeting and she spoke about how they were planning to start the same type of group there.
After the first meeting I talked to 29 year-old Dean who hasn’t managed to put together more than a few occasional sober days after the first meeting. “I understand what these people are saying” Dean said. “Maybe there is some hope for me. I have tried everything and I can’t quit. It just keeps getting worse.” Some of the other members exchanged numbers with Dean and he said he would return the next week. When I attended the second week, Dean was back. He was even more earnest this time. It seems that since the last meeting he had gotten drunk in the bar at the restaurant he works at and had been banned from drinking there again. He latched onto several of the other members a good bit more earnestly and I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to Dean if he hadn’t had this place to go where others understand him.
Steve Palmer, the other founder of Ben’s Friends was in Atlanta for a trade show a few weeks back. After he spoke at the show, a young man came up and introduced himself as the brother of Ben Murray, the young chef whose death prompted this group. “I could tell his death is still having a profound negative effect on the family,” Steve said. “But he came up and thanked me for keeping his brother’s name alive and for helping others who are struggling.”
“Ben had tried to get sober a number of times, and at the time of his death he was surrounded by sober people in his workplace. But he just couldn’t get it,” Mickey said. “There are a lot of Ben’s out there. Hospitality workers are one of the biggest work forces in the country, and we are also one of the work forces who struggles with addiction the most.”
“In this group we have become a family. ‘Let us help you’ we say to all who will listen. I am a big believer in the power of music and will send upbeat songs to new people regularly. Everyone knows they can call me at any time of day or night and I will do everything I can to help. Thirty-six years ago I lost everything, but now I have a great life. There is nothing better than helping young people get sober and showing them that they can do the same thing,” Mickey said.
Ben’s Friends meets Sundays at 11 a.m. in the Cedar Room at 701 East Bay Street in Charleston. That’s right upstairs from the Mercantile and Mash Restaurant located in the old Cigar Factory and where you will find a number of Ben’s Friends meeting early to have some breakfast or staying late to help each other. If you are in the food and beverage industry and need help it is well worth trying. It might just turn out to be the family you have been craving. It just takes a little action to show up.
This article series, written the first and third week of each month, is meant to educate the community about addiction in general and the Opioid Crisis in specific that is affecting communities nationwide. We are hopeful that this series will make a difference. When appropriate the names will be changed of those the articles feature. The author welcomes inquiries or shared experiences, and can be reached at David@PhoenixSC.org.