Steve Palmer had been concerned about substance abuse and addiction in the hospitality industry for many years when he established Ben’s Friends in 2016, following the suicide of his friend and colleague Ben Murray. Palmer is the founder of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group in Charleston, South Carolina, which encompasses 20 restaurants.
But he’s most proud of Ben’s Friends, which he established with his friend and fellow hospitality veteran, Mickey Bakst. The two were both in recovery—Bakst since 1982 and Palmer since 2001—and realized it was time to take action.
Ben’s Friends started as a support meeting for people in the hospitality industry who struggled with addiction or substance abuse. Over time, the organization—which is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit—has grown to 25 cities and continues to expand.
How did you establish Ben’s Friends?
It was very grassroots. Mickey and I said ‘Let’s just start a meeting.’ We thought at that point it would be a little Charleston thing, and reached out to the local food critic and asked her to write a quick blurb to get the word out. It wasn’t any more complicated than that.
For years, Mickey and I were the lone sober guys, and we said we wished we could do something for the industry, and we’d both say we were too busy. But when Ben Murray committed suicide and nobody even knew he was struggling, it went from thinking about doing something to ‘we have to do something.’
How do you get the word out about Ben’s Friends?
The website is bensfriendshope.com. People find out about it because of conversations like this. Mental health has just not been a conversation we’ve had, but in the past five years it’s been great to see that conversation shift.
Anthony Bourdain (who died on June 8, 2018) was really the catalyst for change in this industry. He was so beloved by so many people, especially chefs, so when he committed suicide it shone a spotlight on the industry and the need to take care of each other.
I was not ashamed of my recovery, but Ben’s death has meant I’ve been much more public about it. We wanted to be very public because we were addressing a decades-old issue.
What happens at Ben’s Friends meetings?
It entails just showing up, and the meetings are an hour. People sit around and talk, and it’s very much a sense of community. To sit in a room with your tribe and know that guy’s been sober for five years and he does the same job I do—there is so much power in that shared experience. That’s the gift; you see people who are not only managing to work in hospitality and stay sober, but they’re also thriving, not just existing.
Hospitality is a subculture. We work when everyone else plays. So there’s a feeling of safety if you walk into a Ben’s Friends meeting. If you look around, you may not know anybody, but you know they’re your people and they know the stress and the adrenaline and getting off work at midnight and the camaraderie that comes with a restaurant job. The power in that was something Mickey and I underestimated. People have said they don’t feel comfortable in other recovery groups, but they do here.
You also have Zoom meetings now, in addition to the in-person groups?
We have 21 Zoom meetings a week for people who can’t get to a physical meeting. COVID was a happy accident in that regard. We were in 11 or 12 cities at the time, and we know isolation is the enemy of recovery, and we had a bunch of people trying to get sober locked in a house by themselves. So we immediately went to Zoom and all of a sudden, we had 30, 40, 50 people on a Zoom call.
Every day at 1 p.m. is the national Zoom meeting, led by a different city each day, which is pretty inspiring. There are also subsets now on Zoom. There is the Ben’s Friends Fems for women only, a (gender inclusive) late-night meeting, [and] a men’s meeting.
How do you fundraise?
It doesn’t take a lot. We need two sober restaurant leaders per meeting and we require a place to have a meeting for an hour a day. We have someone who manages social media for awareness, and we go to food and wine festivals. So there is cost, but we’ve been fortunate that people have been so supportive that we haven’t had to raise a lot of money—but as we grow, we will need more. The spirits industry has also really stepped up to donate. They recognize that we don’t say alcohol is bad; it’s just bad for some people. We really look for corporate partners.
We’ve been lucky with the festivals, and many ask us to attend, but we might do a sober after-party. There is a lot of alcohol consumption that goes on at these things. If you’re at a big festival and 98 percent of people there are imbibing, it can be difficult.
What inspired you to go into the food business?
No one else would take me. I came in before the internet, before foodies and ‘Top Chef’ and influencers. I will never forget that I was there to help create an experience for people, and that felt so fulfilling. I never saw serving other people as a less-than job. I found my tribe. It was 1990 and there’s never been a time when I thought about doing anything else.
What’s next for Ben’s Friends?
We want to be in every city in America. There’s a need, and we will not stop until that’s true. As long as there are people who need help getting sober—and there will always be people who need help getting sober—we want Ben’s Friends to shine a brighter light on all of it. And we want to remove the shame of addiction; it’s a disease, not a moral character flaw. And it’s a disease that kills; there’s no middle ground with addiction. I just want to do my part to help people. It’s the least I can do; the industry has given me everything I’ve ever had.