This Chef Doesn’t Serve Alcohol at Staff Parties

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It’s no secret that substance abuse is an issue in the hospitality industry. And while in 2009 The New York Times reported that this had died down a bit, according to a spring 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, hospitality workers still have the highest rates of illicit drug use by industry and the third highest rates of alcohol overuse.

“Chefs—and all the people we work with—they work really hard… and the partying is something we all do to blow off steam, but it’s not heathy,” said bartender and author Jim Meehan to a group of fellow bartenders during a speech last month. The talk was part of the first annual symposium for P(OUR), an organization formed earlier this year to bring together “bartenders, baristas, sommeliers, brewers, winemakers, distillers, and drinks manufacturers… to discuss the past, present and future of drink,” as its website states. Meehan’s thoughts on responsible service are part of that discussion: “I’m uncomfortable watching this lifestyle sicken and kill my colleagues,” he said.

“After 20 years of not taking care of myself, I can’t party like I used to, and I feel self-conscious about it, and I think that’s fucked up,” Meehan continued. “I don’t think that I should have to party, have to do shots, have to drink with you guys until six o’clock [in the morning] to belong.” He finished his talk with a call to action: to not only recognize that “we’re not treating each other very well,” but also to make healthier choices like drinking less booze and exercising, and to inspire others to do the same.

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North Carolina chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Katie Button is doing just that. She doesn’t serve alcohol at events she throws for the staff of her two restaurants, Cúrate and Nightbell, in Asheville. I’ll let her tell you why in her own words below, and I’d love to hear what you think about it all in the comments section.

There’s this rockstar mentality in our industry. You work late, and once you finish, what do you do? You immediately go to the bar with your colleagues. It even starts at work with this idea of the shift drink. We really commend people for being able to work hard and play hard, which is so wrong. Doing that is hard on your self and your life and your family and your career and your growth.

On top of that, there are a lot of people trying to get their relationships with alcohol under control. It’s more common than we tend to think. So when you throw an employee party that has alcohol, and no one wants to be that person who says “no” to their boss pouring them a drink, you end perpetuating this problem.

The first year of business, we did serve alcohol at staff parties, and we had a couple of people who didn’t make it to work on time the next day and a couple who arrived in really rough shape. We—me, my husband, my mother, and my father, who are the four owners of the restaurants—realized that we didn’t want a staff event that set people up for failure. So now we throw an annual staff party around the springtime to get everybody from both restaurants together, and we don’t serve alcohol there.

What is so wrong with American society and the restaurant industry that we feel the only way we can have fun together is to drink? That is absurd! We’re doing something nice for our staff—we’re paying for the food, we’re organizing the outing—why does alcohol have to be a part of it?

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I’m sure that some of our employees are less excited to show up at the parties now, and maybe they’re disappointed that we’re not like some of the other places in town, which throw these blowout holiday staff parties with a ton of free alcohol. But I don’t care. We’re trying to create a culture of professionalism in an environment and in an industry that’s been pegged as unprofessional. What with sexual harassment issues and paying inappropriate wages (not paying overtime), there’s been lot of ugly stuff out there. So we’re trying to create a culture where we take care of ourselves and our staff, and we’re going to make decisions based on what we think is in the best interest of everybody. Not including alcohol at parties is a big part of that, offering paid time off is a part of that, and giving health insurance is a part of that. It’s about helping them create a life that they can enjoy.

At first we got some pushback, but over the years it’s become more expected and understood. We made a point to explain that we wanted to throw something that celebrates all of us, and where everybody can bring their wives and their children.

For two years we did a picnic, but this past year we added a kickball tournament and that was an amazing improvement. I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time; it included the bonding and the little bit of competition and it got everybody together in a new way, having fun without booze.

Since removing alcohol from staff functions, we haven’t had the issue of an employee not showing up at work the next day. And I think my team ultimately appreciates working in a professional environment where the rules are very clear. One of my sous chefs said to me really, “You know, Katie, I love working for you because this is the most professional company that I have ever worked for.” Another one of my sous chefs pulled me aside and said, “I love that we don’t worry about people.” We really work hard to create an environment of mutual respect. So when somebody comes to me to say how respected they feel at work, from the ownership down to all the other managers, that makes me feel really good.

How do you feel about a dry holiday party, or a staff party in general? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

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