Last summer, Obediah O’Connor set up Last Call, a closed Facebook group where people who work in the restaurant industry can post freely and frankly about their struggles and triumphs with alcohol, drugs and addiction.
“To be honest, establishing the page was a selfish act. It was for me. I wanted to connect with other people in the service industry who were trying to quit drinking so I wouldn’t feel alone,” said O’Connor, of Bloomington, who has worked at local restaurants the past 15 years. “I was fresh in my sobriety and reaching for a life raft.”
Today, Last Call has 517 members, including servers, chefs, bartenders and others who work at Minnesota restaurants. It’s become a resource for the hospitality industry, an online channel for lively exchanges, messages of support and confessions that detail successes and setbacks.
In the Twin Cities, O’Connor is one of several restaurant veterans who have joined forces to create a grass-roots response to address a problem that plagues their industry.
“You’re in an environment where you’re surrounded by alcohol,” he said. “You’re paid a barely livable wage, but you might have pre-shift tastings and free drinks at the end of the night as a perk and an unwritten part of the job. Drinking is not just acceptable, it’s part of our culture.”
While no profession, industry or economic sector is immune from problem drinking and chemical abuse, research studies identify the hospitality business as consistently among the most problematic. That’s not surprising given the omnipresent triggers and temptations that accompany the presence of booze in their workplaces and the tradition of after-hours socializing.
A rule of thumb puts alcohol problems — dependence and abuse — at 9 percent among the general population, but a report by the George Washington University Medical Center calculated that number at 15 percent in the hospitality industry. Among workers ages 18 to 25, more than 18 percent had an alcohol-related problem.
“I was suffering with anxiety and depression, and when I hit my bottom with alcohol, I had to quit,” said Melinda Dorn, who worked as a chef for 25 years. “My boss cared about me; I know he did. But he didn’t know how to help.”
After leaving the kitchen, Dorn went into recovery. Now a certified peer support specialist and an alcohol and drug counselor trainee, she founded CulinaRecovery last year to provide online and face-to-face peer recovery support and coaching for food and beverage workers.
She uses its web presence to communicate a message of hope to restaurant staffers troubled by their alcohol consumption.
“We work in these tight circles, and your family of choice becomes the people you work with every day,” she said. “When you get sober, you can be exiled from your community. You need a new group to celebrate victories with. We have to help our own.”
The peer-to-peer outreach that’s bubbling up can be an effective method for reaching people who are ready to make changes.
“Addiction is a disease of isolation,” said Jeremiah Gardner, a chemical dependency counselor at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “It’s helpful for people who want to get on a healthy path to make a connection facilitated by those with common experiences. One of the gifts of recovery is to see how much we share in common with others.”
Gardner, who oversees the Daily Pledge, the online recovery community at Hazelden Betty Ford, applauds the online communities and Facebook pages curated by those in the service industry.
“Online recovery support resources are relatively new, but increasingly part of the recovery world we live in,” he said. “It’s just starting to be studied, and early research validates that this can be effective. The digital world can be an indispensable source of ongoing fellowship. It’s also a great place for people in recovery to be of service to others still struggling or just beginning to look for help.”
But formal treatment is often not available to food and beverage workers.
“There’s not a lot of support or resources for mental health or chemical dependency needs in our business,” said Drea Devora, a server from Minneapolis. “If we have health insurance, it usually isn’t great, and independent restaurants don’t have HR departments.”
She is a board member for Serving Those Serving, a newly launched Minneapolis nonprofit that advocates for restaurant professionals and their common struggles and has sponsored symposiums on mental health and stress in the workplace.
“There’s a culture shift going on in kitchens right now, where we’re no longer willing to be silent, ” she said. “Changes in our industry can’t come from owners. They can support us, but the movement has to be led by the people behind the bar or on the floor or there is no credibility.”
At Last Call, connections have jumped from virtual reality to the real world. Frequently a worker in recovery offers to accompany someone trying to stay sober to an AA meeting. Posters share their phone numbers or jump to private messaging to set up a personal outreach.
“It’s a ridiculously small industry, and a lot of us want to be there for each other,” O’Connor said.
In his first year of recovery, he stopped smoking, switched to a plant-based diet and found a new job, as a chef for a contract food-service company that has no alcohol on its premises. He gives some of the credit for his changed life to the peers he’s connected with through social media.
“People have been willing to be so vulnerable and others respond back with love and support, no judgment,” he said. “Some people we hear from are still active in their disease, but they have sobriety as a goal. They know where to go when they’re ready.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.