Michael Barrera knows well the stressors of the restaurant industry — late nights, grueling hours, endless pressure, and a constant exposure to alcohol.
For 25 years, he drank alcohol, sometimes heavily, to wind down from it all after a long work shift. Now 10 months sober, Barrera, a chef at Frame in Hazel Park, wants to support others struggling with substance use disorder and addiction. He and Cathy Colombo, a sales rep for a local wine distributor, have just launched a local chapter of Ben’s Friends, a sobriety support group for workers in food and beverage, an industry rife with substance use.
Charleston, South Carolina, restaurateurs Steve Palmer and Mickey Bakst, who is also from metro Detroit, started the national nonprofit to honor chef and friend Ben Murray who died by suicide in 2016 after struggling with alcoholism and depression. Palmer, who had his own issues with substance use disorder, realized that many other restaurant workers were dealing with addiction and mental health issues, but few were talking about it. Since jump-starting new conversations about mental health and self-care in the industry, Palmer has helped Ben’s Friends spread to 14 cities nationwide, with Detroit being the latest.
Meetings are loosely based on the concept of Alcoholics Anonymous, where a spirit of mutual trust and creating a safe space is central. Ben’s Friends, however, is tailored to specifically support chefs, bartenders, wait staff, and others in the hospitality industry. Anyone is welcome, however, working in bars and nightclubs poses particular challenges related to substance use disorder and addiction, Barrera says. While alcohol is eschewed in most places of employment, it’s a constant presence in restaurants and bars, which means that grabbing a drink at the bar after work — at midnight, 1 or 2 a.m. — is common.
A 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that the food-service and hospitality industry has the highest rates of substance use disorders and the third-highest rate of heavy alcohol consumption of all employment sectors.
The hour-long meetings for Ben’s Friends are held at 11 a.m. each Monday at Frame (23839 John R Rd., Hazel Park). Topics can range from the joys of sobriety to family and commitment. The general idea, however, is to provide a venue to share.
“Isolation seems to be the enemy of staying sober,” says Barrera. “During the past year and a half, we’ve discovered that sometimes meeting online just doesn’t cut it for everyone. This is just a place to share.
“You can be a day sober and come to our meetings,” says Barrera. “If someone went out drinking the night before and wants help, we’re available.”