For many folks who work your average nine-to-five, it’s not uncommon to engage in happy hour with coworkers or friends at the end of a long day or to pour a stiff drink at home as we curl into the plushness of our sofas with a glass of Pinot and the latest episode of “Love is Blind” on Netflix. Yet, for the service industry, our happy hours look a bit different.
They often begin in the wee hours of the morning, right along with our food and beverage brethren from establishments on the same block who also have endured hours of drink tickets, customer quirks, achy bodies and a salary that depends on just how generous our customers are feeling that evening. It is nice to clank a glass with our community, but oftentimes, service industry workers who are living and breathing booze day in and day out can engage in unhealthy patterns that lead to downright destructive behavior.
And many of us have seen it far too many times. Members of our community started taking note of these issues last year and decided to take action. Enter the Louisville chapter of the sober industry group, Ben’s Friends: “the food and beverage industry support group offering hope, fellowship and a path forward to professionals who struggle with substance abuse and addiction.”
Ben’s Friends was founded in Charleston, South Carolina, in honor of Chef Ben Murray, who took his life after struggling with alcoholism and depression. The organization now boasts an additional 11 chapters nationally. “I’ve been sober a year and a half, and after I got into a good place mentally and emotionally, I started to reflect on the industry,” said Cillian Browne, one of the facilitators of the Louisville chapter, who helps run the meetings alongside Andry Rakotoniaina (the face of the Louisville group), Anna Kate McWhorter and Nick Wilson. Louisville’s group meets every Sunday at 11 a.m. at Monnik Beer Co. in the upstairs function room.
“There are people out there who live the life, and it becomes a problem,” said Browne. “We weren’t able to be functioning members of society. You literally work, stay late all night, get off work and blow off steam, have a drink. You aren’t able to go to sleep, and you can’t just immediately switch it off.” Browne said that using substances in these moments can be a crutch and that Ben’s Friends wants its community to know they understand the struggles. “To be able to sit in a room full of people, and you all have something in common, and you work in an industry that is centered around it … everyone gets something out of it.”
Ben’s Friends is not affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, but its members also remain anonymous, and anyone who comes must have a desire to stop drinking or using. The meetings are informal, facilitated by members of the community, and one person typically speaks on an issue that may have happened during the week — good or bad — which fosters discussion among the group. It has eight to nine regular members and attendance is growing. Browne said it’s been nice to see people progress week to week. While the group’s aim is to foster sober health in the service industry, being sober is not a requirement.
“It can be intimidating, and it’s a huge step just to show up,” said Browne. In addition to Ben’s Friends, simply fostering healthier habits whilst working in the industry is a huge step. We can all think about activities we can do with our staffs that don’t involve drinking.
Amie Ward, for example, a Chicago-based bartender and health coach also known as “The Healthtender,” has been conducting seminars and staff trainings on healthier habits in the industry — such as stretching prior to shifts, bartender meal-prepping hacks and healthy intra-shift snacks and staff health assessments. I’m planning on facilitating group workouts, hikes and volunteer-based team building activities with my staff at NoraeBar. “Andry (from Garage Bar) is very active in cycling,” said Browne, of his Ben’s Friends cohort. “He found info where bars, instead of having shift drinks, they go for a run!”
In addition to Sunday mornings at Monnik, Ben’s Friends meets informally at Boombozz in The Highlands on Thursdays at 11:30 p.m., perhaps a time that feels natural to have a libation after a long shift. Whatever that struggle may be, BF Louisville wants anyone who needs them to know, above all, “you aren’t alone,” and that you can join them anytime, no questions asked. •