There’s something about being a bartender that’s so appealing, they make movies about it. But there can also be a dark side that industry vets are starting to talk about more openly — and has led them to make changes to their lifestyles, in numbers beyond what anyone may have guessed. These days, there are tons of sober folks slinging drinks, talking wine and running restaurants, making choices to stay alive and stay in the industry.
A lot of people get into the food and beverage industry full of energy and excitement, and while many stay in it for a long while, some don’t make it back out.
The hours are long and late, there’s no standard for employers to offer employees healthcare and the benefits are often limited to just a shift drink with coworkers after a long night. This kicks off a culture of drinking to celebrate a job well done and getting through the chaos together.
And when that all combines — stressful working conditions, no time to recuperate and mornings spent recovering from the night before — many people in the food and beverage trade burn out. For some, that means quitting the industry. But for many people in the business today, it means quitting drinking.
Talking to bartenders, sommeliers, chefs, restaurant owners and other vets, stories are loaded with details about how they were almost swallowed by drinking — and why they stayed.
IF YOU’RE SOBER AND YOU KNOW IT, OPEN A BAR
Eric Nelson used to fly in bartenders from around the country to shake and stir cocktails for his Portland pop-up bar, Shipwreck. Nelson knows how to throw a party, but he gave up being the party on March 28, 2014. That’s when he got sober and got serious about repairing the damage he’d done while drinking.
“It got to the point where I’d drop [the] kids off at school, stop at the supermarket and drink a bottle of sherry on the way home,” he says of some of his lowest points.
He had been working in the industry for years, drinking the amount of alcohol that often comes with that, when he had a seizure. “I felt like I was dying; I saw that I was dying,” he recalls. “I had overstayed my welcome with booze. And one day, I called the owner of the restaurant where I was working, and said ‘I’m checking in.’” He went to a rehab facility in Long Beach, Washington, for 45 days.
After he got out, Nelson says the first year was the hardest — mostly because no one in the industry would touch him. They thought having a sober employee around alcohol was “risky.” He got a job instead driving for a gourmet food company, bringing chefs food and making new industry connections while finding stability in his life.
Eventually, he felt ready to be around booze and got a job at Expatriate in Portland, becoming bar manager within six months while staying sober. Now, he co-owns Eem, a Thai restaurant and bar with a focus on “vacation drinks” in North Portland.
Eem opened with seven nonalcoholic drinks, which Nelson says are “completely different” than anything else on the menu. “Most of the bars you go to, they just do nonalcoholic drinks that are variations of their alcoholic drinks,” he says. “But these take as much time and care to prepare.”
What helped him get to where he is today, he says, is doing inner research — finding out he wasn’t happy and why. He’s working to make amends with friends and family, for not showing up all the years when he was too drunk or hungover to.
While he doesn’t engage with AA, the idea of helping others who are just starting to go through getting sober and helping them not feel isolated is motivation for him to talk to others. In March, Nelson attended one of the first meetings of “Ben’s Friends,” a support group for industry people, started in the South but brought to Portland by chefs Gabe Rucker (Le Pigeon, Little Bird, Canard) and Gregory Gourdet (of “Top Chef” fame, Departure Restaurant + Lounge).
“There’s a huge movement toward sobriety and health,” he says. “People in the industry are taking their bodies seriously, realizing this thing doesn’t last forever.”
MASTER OF WINE, NOT THE BOTTLE
In his hometown of Bend, Oregon, his old stomping grounds of Napa Valley and around the world, Tim Hanni is known as one of the most knowledgeable people in the wine industry. He’s a consultant and educator who helps set the tone for the “next big thing” in wine and does product development to help companies get there. He’s also 26 years sober.
When he first confronted his problem, he talked to a counselor whose initial request was for him to “list all of the functional relationships in your life,” Hanni recalls. “I realized I didn’t have any.”
He entered the wine industry, unofficially, in 1966 when he began studying wine at age 14. By the time he had to face his drinking problem, he had just been promoted to the director of international business at historic Napa winery Beringer. He told the team, “I’m taking 28 days vacation,” then entered a treatment center.
Hanni channeled his love of learning to studying the neurology of alcoholism, which helped him see the problem as a serious disease and learn as much as he could about it. Working with a trusted counselor, he laid out what his life could look like and realized he wanted to stay in the industry. “My counselor asked, ‘Would you be willing to give it up if you had to?’ And I didn’t waffle. I just said, ‘Yes,’” he says.
Making decisions for companies about wine while not drinking is a balancing act. Hanni tastes and spits, which he knows some people argue is still consuming. “Great, I don’t care, it works for me,” he says. “There are a lot of people where the triggers are so strong that even mouthwash could trigger a relapse. You can’t use anyone else as a model. Just do what works for you.”
It works for him, but he knows that if anything ever triggers him to relapse, he’ll walk away. And that keeps him in the industry.
When you’re a sommelier, it’s easy to see wine not as booze, but as the job. Vancouver, British Columbia, somm Christopher McFadden knows how easy it is to get into this mindset and says that many sommeliers take a look at their drinking at some point — to check themselves. “Wine is always free, and it’s easy to get swallowed,” he says.
Besides the wine that came free to him from the industry, each time a table ordered a high-ticket wine, they’d offer him a glass. And the pressure to know which wine paired with food meant he needed to keep his knowledge sharp.
But two years ago, his wife recommended he try being in the industry without drinking. “I decided to take the summer off,” McFadden says of leaving the private club where he worked. “My father-in-law quit drinking 42 years ago. He said, ‘You got to measure your needs versus your wants. You need your wife.’”
Reimagining his industry involvement, McFadden started working for the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, running premium dining for the suites. “The moment I knew I’d never go back to drinking was eight months in, when a guest threw up on me,” he remembers.
Since becoming sober, he’s lost 20 pounds, started a business plan to open a pizza shop and become a partner in Piva Modern Italian in New Westminster, a restaurant just outside Vancouver. “I have business partners that fully trust that I’ll make good choices, and I’m incredibly fortunate for this opportunity,” McFadden says. “I didn’t just stop drinking; I reevaluated what was important to me.”
A CULTURE SHIFT AT RESTAURANTS
Besides employees themselves feeling the burn, some restaurants have re-scoped their culture to fit with changing needs from their employees.
Irving Street Kitchen in Portland replaced end-of-the-night shift drinks with Midnight Yoga. Once a week, after service wraps, server Dana Blaney instructs the team through a mindful flow. Others from the industry are invited to come to the sessions for a nominal fee, which Irving Street covers for its employees.
“We fully understand the need to wind down after the attention and intention it takes to work in this industry, as well as relaxing your body after pushing so hard during shift,” says Anna Caporael, Irving Street general manager. “We believe it’s our responsibility to push cultural changes for the sake of our industry.”
Caporael points to the younger staff entering the industry making changes toward health. “They’re more concerned about their physical and emotional well-being and question the rewards of the workplace beyond the paycheck,” she adds. “It’s crystal clear we are moving into a new era of balance instead of ‘work yourself to death.’”
FRIENDLY FESTIVAL PROGRAMMING
Festivals are known for being overindulgent glut sessions, but Feast Portland is at the forefront of translating the changing needs of the industry to the festival’s programming.
A chef led the movement there — local hero Gabe Rucker of Le Pigeon. Sober for five-and-a-half years, Rucker had the idea to do a Zero Proof dinner with other sober chefs, pairing courses with nonalcoholic drinks for a highly personal evening of storytelling and connecting.
He pointed to the “debaucherous” nature of most food festivals as the reason for infusing his experiences into the dinner. “It seemed like there were enough chefs — well-known chefs — that were getting sober,” he says. “And I was like, ‘What if we had a dinner and instead of promoting alcohol and getting drunk, we promoted being healthy in our business?’”
The dinner was a huge success, with chefs Rucker, Sean Brock (Husk, Nashville), Michael Solomonov (Zahav, Philadelphia), Gregory Gourdet (Departure, Portland) and Andrew Zimmern (Food Network) pairing courses with both nonalcoholic drinks and personal tales.
Feast organizer Carrie Welch was in full support of Rucker’s idea and empowered him to run with it. After last year’s success, the dinner is slated for another round this year and the festival has expanded programming for 2019 to include even more sober-friendly and healthy events.
“This movement is changing that whole perception that you have to party like a rock star,” Welch says. “They don’t believe that anymore. It’s refreshing,”
This year, official after-parties end earlier (before midnight) and they’re introducing morning “before parties” that include trail running and yoga for industry people to enjoy before kicking off each day’s big events.
“There’s a movement for more balance, and we’re going to support that,” says Welch. They’re even adding the festival’s first kid-friendly event — Melty Fest — to the lineup.
In addition to new programming, there will be more nonalcoholic drinks than ever at all events, with Portland companies Smith Teamaker and Som drinking vinegar — from Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker — leading the way. Ricker recently relaunched Som, partially in response to the nonalcoholic movement he’s seen in the industry.
When it first came out, Som was intended to be a mixer for both booze and nonalcoholic applications. But these days, they have the latter in mind.
“I’m no statistician, but it seems there is more demand for nonalcoholic drinks as the legalization of marijuana spreads,” Ricker explains. “Certain demographics are turning away from alcohol in favor of sobriety or moderation but still embrace the lifestyle associated with drinking booze, namely going out to bars and restaurants as a prime form of entertainment.”
A CHEF IN WINE COUNTRY
Chef Mika Paredes cooks at one of the most popular restaurants in Oregon Wine Country — Thistle in McMinnville. Before she made her way there, she blazed into Portland’s food scene as Naomi Pomeroy’s chef de cuisine at Beast and assisted in producing an international food festival, Meatopia.
Along the way, she moved from after-work drinks with coworkers to keeping whiskey on the line, then dove deep into the bottle and suffered a drug overdose before going to rehab. She had gotten sober in her mid-20s but relapsed at 30.
When at her worst, she was traveling the country with her friend Josh Ozersky, leading Meatopia. The hours were crazy and long, with an intense travel and production schedule. After seven years at Beast, she was coping with questions about identity that came from leaving behind what she knew so well. She started drinking more than before and crashed her car in a drunk driving accident.
And then, while in Chicago together for the 2015 James Beard Awards, Ozersky had a massive seizure and died. Paredes was devastated. Finally, she had a drug and alcohol overdose and had to face the truth, seeking a seven-day detox in the hospital.
Now three and a half years sober, Paredes credits her industry friends for helping her get here — including Goose Island and Virtue Cider founder Greg Hall, who, in addition to a GoFundMe campaign, helped to pay for her to go to a monthlong rehab program in Canada.
Living in the middle of wine country is peaceful, if not a strange juxtaposition for a sober chef. But the industry runs deep in her life, with her boyfriend working in the wine industry and siblings serving drinks and running bars in Portland.
Things are changing for good, Paredes says. “There’s a change; there’s a wave of successful people,” she adds. “The booze didn’t get us there; the talent has always been there. But we know better; you didn’t have to do that. You can just be who you need to be and ask for help.”