Ben's Friends hopes to start a conversation about addiction within the restaurant industry

Andy Downing
Andy Smith photographed inside of the Sycamore in German Village

Earlier this year, after Sycamore general manager Andy Smith read an industry trade article about Ben’s Friends, a restaurant support group for those struggling with substance abuse, he felt compelled to reach out to the nonprofit organization, which is based in Charleston, South Carolina, inquiring about the possibility of starting a chapter in Columbus. What he didn’t anticipate is that the group’s leadership would respond quickly in the affirmative, and also ask him to lead the charge.

“And I was like, ‘Shit,’” Smith said in an early September interview at a German Village coffee shop several blocks from the Sycamore, where you’ll find him on most nights.

As regulars can attest, it’s rare to catch the affable Smith, a restaurant industry veteran, at such a loss for words. Since getting clean in 2006, Smith has also maintained a constant dialogue around his sobriety, both online and in speaking engagements, which he described as essential to his recovery. As a result, he doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the details that finally led him to get clean — a decision that wasn’t entirely his choice.

“I was telling myself restaurants were the problem, so I left, and then five months later I was working at a cellphone company when I woke up in jail. So, lo and behold, restaurants weren’t my problem,” said Smith, who was forced into court-ordered rehab as a result of the arrest. “It literally took that situation to realize it’s up here [points to his head] and not in here [gestures at the coffee shop surroundings]. … I wanted to be a part of [Ben’s Friends] because I don’t think people realize you can work in a restaurant and be sober.”

Prior to getting clean, Smith viewed his behaviors less as a product of choice than chance. Back when he worked at J Alexander’s in Crosswoods, the eatery had big, metal trashcans, and most nights Smith would grab a beverage napkin, crumble it into a ball, and lob it toward the canister. “And if I made it, I was going to have a good night. And if I missed it, I was going to have a bad night,” he said. “And a bad night meant I was going to get arrested. … And that’s what I thought it was. I thought it was luck. I thought it was out of my hands.”

Gradually, though, as Smith continued to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, particular words and phrases started to stick, especially a chapter that listed the different things addicts do in an attempt to maintain sobriety. “It said, ‘Took a trip. Did not take a trip,’” Smith said. “‘Did not take a trip,’ it hit me in a meeting. My buddy, Craig, one of my best friends in the world, I skipped his wedding because I didn’t trust myself to not act like an idiot. … So I did not take a trip, and it was in that second I realized, ‘Oh, I do belong here. We’re all the same.’”

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For two days after receiving the message from Ben’s Friends, Smith wrestled with how to reply, realizing it would be a significant time commitment on top of an already demanding career. Eventually, he relented, trading emails with the organization, which then flew Smith to Charleston for orientation. Ben’s Friends also paired Smith with Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which had similarly inquired about rolling out the group here at the behest of CMR internal auditor, the 28-years-sober Holly Harrah, who will co-chair the Columbus chapter of Ben’s Friends alongside Smith. The group will hold weekly open meetings Sundays at 11 a.m. at Cameron’s American Bistro, with the inaugural event taking place on Sunday, Sept. 15.

“Having [alcohol] easily accessible, the late hours that people work, the commitment to our industry, it’s high pressure, and the statistics [around drug and alcohol use] bear that out,” Harrah said, pointing to a data-filled TEDx Talk by Ben’s Friends co-founder Steve Palmer about the prevalence of addiction within the field. “As far as a percentage of substance abuse, the restaurant industry is higher than other industries. … If you’re selling wine, for instance, you’re almost encouraged to drink.”

Smith also noted the high personal stakes underpinning the profession, which can be directly tied to a person’s sense of self-worth. “If you really want to dig into it, I have two hours to get you to like me, and at the end you’re going to show me exactly how much you like me by your tip,” he said. It’s a pressure that could lead some in the industry to employ various substances to mask everything from anxiety to a foul mood.

Both Harrah and Smith also mentioned the late-night hours, where after-work activities are often relegated to bars, as well as the damaging myth of the hard-partying, rough-and-tumble cook — a façade that has finally started to erode in recent years, thanks to all-star chefs like Charleston’s Sean Brock, who has candidly discussed his struggles with alcohol abuse and the importance of self-care.

Ben’s Friends was founded in 2016 by longtime restaurateurs Mickey Bakst and Steve Palmer after Palmer’s friend, Charleston chef Ben Murray, died by suicide in the midst of his struggles with addiction. The program has since mushroomed, expanding to cities with growing food scenes, including Atlanta, Portland, Oregon, and Asheville, North Carolina, among others.

While Smith never met Murray, he said he has known a handful of Bens during his life both inside and out of the industry, and he’s hopeful that the program will have an added impact due to the common language and lifestyle shared by those working in restaurants, which he witnessed firsthand while attending a Ben’s Friends meeting in Charleston.

“This lady said something I’d never heard in a meeting, and I’ve been going to meetings for a thousand years,” Smith said. “She said she still struggles, and one of the things she still struggles with is getting jazzed up to go and talk to a table, and then coming down from that, and I’d never heard anyone in AA say that.”

It’s a feeling to which Smith identified closely, noting that he still requires a similar pick-me-up to this day, though it now comes from different sources. “I don’t think I’ve ordered a small coffee, ever,” he said, laughing.

But it’s these kinds of relatable conversations that Smith hopes to carry on as Ben’s Friends expands into the city beginning this weekend.

“I love restaurants. This is kind of where my second family is,” Smith said. “If I can start that conversation and say, ‘Hey, it’s OK to be sober, and it’s OK to be sober in a restaurant,’ that’s something I feel like Columbus really needs. And, to be honest, I really need it, too.”

Cameron’s American Bistro

11 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 15

2185 W. Dublin-Granville Rd., Worthington

Ben's Friends inaugural meeting