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Working Inside a Pressure Cooker

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

Kicked to the curb the day after Christmas, Todd Hunt lost everything—his wife, his three children, his million-dollar home in Mount Vernon, a close friend, and his sobriety.

This fine-dining restaurant manager, originally from Washington, found himself at rock bottom after working full-time for nearly two decades in the food services industry. “I really had nowhere else to go,” he said.

Hunt’s story is just one of many employees working in the food and beverage services. Behind all the glamour of the industry, drugs and alcohol are taking their toll as addiction rates are climbing to alarming rates in North America.

A 2022 survey conducted by the American Addiction Centers found that 17 per cent of food service workers have been diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder and 56 per cent of food service workers consume alcohol daily.

These high addiction rates can be attributed to the work culture surrounding the hospitality industry theorizes addiction specialist and experimental psychologist Mike Robinson. “It's a really stressful environment. People are tired, they're overworked, they're working rough and bad hours, […] they need relief of some kind and they need it fast and readily available,” he explained. Such types of relief can include drugs, alcohol, porn, gambling, or food.

Many restaurant workers agree that their lifestyle is abnormal. “It's a very high adrenaline business,” said Hunt, “you kind of got to be a little bit crazy to do it.” The main source of stress lies in pleasing customers, added Andre deWaal, a New Jersey native, fine dining and ramen restaurant owner. “There is the pressure from within, the perfectionist need that one has and then there is the need to meet and exceed customer expectations every single day. You’re only as good as your last plate,” he said.

For Hunt, like many in the industry, drugs and alcohol were a coping mechanism for all the stress. At the peak of his addiction, his attitude towards the industry was very bleak. “You lived hard, you worked hard, you played hard, and if people died along the way, they just couldn't hang.”

But Hunt did not think of himself as an alcoholic. Despite only planning to work in the industry temporarily, Hunt quickly fell in love with it and moved up the ranks. “I enjoy watching people have a great experience with wine and food,” he described. He eventually got a job at an acclaimed fine dining restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, called Magnolias, where he connected with Steve Palmer, a well-celebrated restaurant manager in the industry and founder of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, an umbrella organization operating numerous restaurants and hotels promoting the support of hospitality workers.

His passion, however, quickly began his poison. The fast pace and high stress of the restaurant industry were quite conducive to developing an addiction, he explained. “It went with the industry […] we did [drugs and drank alcohol] after work, and that's how I'd always convinced myself that I didn't have a problem.”

He thought back to when he and Palmer would indulge in excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol in celebration of a profitable night. “We were just full of ourselves. It was one of those things where you just knew you're going to make [just as much money] the next night,” he said.

For Hunt, drinking and using drugs are just naturally engrained in the industry’s culture. After-shift drinks are standard practice. “It was very much a sense of camaraderie,” he said, “the business is very adrenaline-oriented and so it was our way to blow things out, […] it was very fun for me.”

This experience is not unique to Hunt. Many find themselves in the food services industry under similar circumstances, explained Catarina Bill, director of philanthropy and programs for Southern Smoke Foundation—a non-profit organization seeking to provide mental health resources and financial aid to hospitality workers. “The biggest challenge we're seeing is that [the industry] represents almost every vulnerable population,” she said. Single mothers, former veterans, and people coming out of the judicial system are among “the top hiring and employment groups,” she explained. Such vulnerable groups, however, are more likely to face challenges, such as financial stress, and their “coping mechanisms are very often related to substance,” she added.

The lack of access to mental health services is most problematic, explained Bill. “There hasn't been a whole lot of encouragement to actually take care of yourself, mentally and physically. It's just has never existed.”

Hunt, unfortunately, was just one of the many victims of this broken system. He did not want to have a drink, but he needed to. He saw men dying around him, but it “wasn't something you talked about,” he said. “A lot of us lost a lot of friends,” he said, slowly growing emotional. One death stands out. He reminisced on one of his friends who died of a heart attack the same night the two did drugs together. Hunt discussed how he still struggles to understand why he is lucky to live another day, while others are not.

He knew he needed help, but his initial attempt at Alcoholics Anonymous failed. He remembers his first meeting clearly. “The people in there were laughing about [their addiction]. I didn't think it was funny. […] These people were happy and I saw something in there that intrigued me,” he described.

But Hunt was not ready to give up alcohol and drugs. He continued working in the industry, navigating through alcohol and drugs every day, he said.

After failing his first AA program, however, Hunt decided to leave the industry thinking it would curb his dependency on drugs and alcohol.

He moved to Northern Virginia with his wife and three children and became a stay-at-home dad, pursuing a master’s degree at night. And while Hunt successfully achieved his graduate degree, it was not long before he fell back into his old habits. Except now, Hunt was drinking to suppress his loneliness and maintain his responsibilities as a father. “I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin […] and that's when I started hiding my drinking,” he described.

His relationship with his wife also crumbled. “We'd fight and I'd give [alcohol] up for a little while and then slowly ease back in. It was just this vicious cycle,” he said. He attempted AA for a second time but said he did not take it seriously. “I did it to get her off my back,” he admitted shamefully.

Hunt’s addiction controlled his life. Drugs and alcohol meant more to him than “being a good father, a good friend, a good son,” he said. He painfully remembered how worried his parents were.

“For years, they didn't know if they were ever going to see me alive again.”

By 2008, Hunt lost it all. “[My wife] had enough. Basically, in her mind, AA didn't work because I had been in and out two times. She had tried to stay with me, but she just couldn't anymore,” he recalled, “I couldn't believe she was actually going to leave me.”

His parents and older brother, whom he was closest to, also refused to speak to him. “The first few years were very much a struggle because I was by myself,” he stressed.

Left without any services or supporters to guide him through his addiction, Hunt continued drinking throughout his divorce. “I was drinking around the clock. I was hitting a Tequila bottle around three o'clock in the morning to sleep. It was absolute hell on earth,” he remembered. Hunt said he was scared about where his addiction would lead him.

Depressed and alone, Hunt resorted to finding solace in an unexpected place: AA. “Everyone was gone so I really clung to my AA family and that's what got me through,” he explained.

This time he was committed to staying sober. In the past, giving up alcohol and drugs meant leaving the job he dedicated years to. “In AA, they tell you that you need to get out of the restaurant business, but it's all I've ever done,” he said. Knowing he had bills to pay, Hunt understood that working in the industry would require him to find a good sober program and set boundaries at work.

The journey ahead of him was long and difficult, but he started by picking the pieces up one by one. The first step was finding stability in his life. He went to live with his younger brother and found an easy restaurant gig.

“I had gotten a job, I was showing up every weekend for my kids, I was paying my bills, which I hadn't done in a long time. I was getting better,” he explained. Looking back, Hunt realized that this was the easy part of his sobriety journey, though, at the moment, it did not feel like that. “In my mind, my life wasn't getting better. I was very much still struggling,” he said.

The next part, however, was the real challenge: Hunt had to successfully get through all the steps of AA. Acceptance was the first part of that.

“I have to accept the fact that I can't drink safely,” he said. Remembering this fact allowed him to safely re-enter the restaurant industry.

Hunt admitted that his mindset going into AA the third time was different. “I'm amazed that a drink didn't cross my mind early on in sobriety. It surprised me,” he said. The venue no longer mattered because Hunt knew he was done for good. “I could drink but we all know where that's going to go eventually,” he reminds himself daily.

Now fully sober, he can proudly admit that he is comfortable being around alcohol all the time at work without worrying that he will take a drink.

He also had to face the impact that his actions had on his former wife and children. “I didn't value my then wife and I didn't value the relationship I had with my kids. That was a tough pill to swallow,” he said.

In going through the steps of AA, he said that he has learnt the cause for most of his actions. Having grown up with an abusive father and experiencing the divorce of his parents, Hunt had deeply unresolved trauma from his childhood. “It gave me the answers that I was looking for,” he said.

Today, Hunt continues to follow these steps. Every day he prays, reads literature, talks to another alcoholic, stays sober, and thanks a higher power for another day, he said proudly.

From time to time, he thinks back to his first-ever AA meeting. He finally understands why those men were laughing. They were not laughing at what they had done, he explained, they were laughing at their own stupidity. “There is some dark humour in AA,” he said. For Hunt, laughing at the crazy stuff he used to do gives him the strength to move on as opposed to wallowing in his guilt.

Years following his third attempt in AA, Hunt was reading the daily newspaper and saw a familiar name—Steve Palmer. He discovered that Palmer, along with another chef, Mickey Bakst, co-founded an organization called Ben’s Friends—a support group for restaurant workers battling sobriety. Palmer and Bakst named the organization after Ben Murray, a well-known Charleston chef who died by suicide after battling substance abuse.

At the time of his death, Murray’s friends and colleagues had been sober for many years, including Palmer who was 16 years sober. His death came as a shock, explained Hunt, because “he was struggling but surrounded by people who are sober,” added Hunt.

Unlike AA, members of Ben’s Friends are not anonymous and publicly share their struggles with substance abuse and addiction to help others.

After learning about Ben’s Friends, Hunt joined immediately. “When Ben’s Friends came out, I just thought it was the greatest thing. It was definitely different. It was about having the conversation, which had been taboo for the longest time,” he said.

The organization makes it clear that it is not a recovery program, but rather a recovery community and should be attended in combination with AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Nonetheless, this organization has changed lives, said Hunt. “It was amazing to watch people get sober who had never gone to AA or NA.”

Today, Hunt can proudly say that he is now 13 years sober, after three AA attempts over 12 years. He has since remarried and works as the general manager of Oak Steakhouse in Old Town, Alexandria. He repaired the relationship with his family and successfully co-parents his three children with his former wife.

And while he is proud of the progress he has made, the journey is ongoing. Hunt still attends AA meetings and Ben’s Friends community discussions daily.

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