Virtual to reality: Ben’s Friends returns to in-person meetings

Following a year on Zoom, the local chapter of the restaurant industry-centered addiction support group has finally resumed weekly face-to-face meets

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Andy Smith helped to start a Columbus chapter of Ben's Friends, a nonprofit organization that helps those working in the hospitality industry to become sober. Smith, pictured on Tuesday, December 22, 2020, has been sober for 10 years and works as a bartender at Harvest Bar and Kitchen in the Brewery District.

This past Sunday, about a dozen bar and restaurant workers gathered in person at Cameron’s American Bistro in Worthington, where Ben’s Friends, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those in the service industry become sober, was conducting its first in-person meeting since the pandemic sent everything virtual last March.

“It was great seeing all the regulars who were there pre-pandemic, and being together in the same room. We’re a lot of huggers, with consent,” said Andy Smith, who cofounded the Columbus chapter and continued to run both national and local Zoom meetings for Ben's Friends throughout a challenging year that has seen the service industry decimated by COVID-19. “With sobriety meetings, the meat, for me, is in the connections, and so I missed being in the room with certain people. … And restaurant people, the whole point is hospitality, right? So everybody is super welcoming. Everybody’s super open and honest. And everybody’s really, really funny, so we were all laughing and having a good time. And that’s a point I want to get across. … There’s a misconception that these meetings are heavy and emotional and there’s all of this crying, and, don’t get me wrong, there is. But Ben’s Friends, at least from what I’ve seen, is also really fun.”

In an interview last March, Smith detailed his struggles with moving the meeting to cyberspace, a challenge driven both by his unfamiliarity with the technology and the abrupt nature of the switch. “We as a people — recovering people — aren’t good with change,” Smith said at the time. “I mean, Ben’s Friends is basically an offshoot of AA, and AA has been around 80 years now, meeting in church basements with people you’ve come to know and shitty coffee, and now that’s completely different. ... So it was a very hard process.”

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As the pandemic stretched on, some of these challenges increased, particularly as enthusiasm for the online platform plateaued, necessitating regional Zoom calls. Toward the end, Columbus combined its weekly meet-up with chapters in Louisville, Charlotte and Kansas City, Missouri, multistate hangouts that still struggled to draw more than 10 attendees on most days.

This issue wasn’t unique to Ben’s Friends, either. In June, when discussing the challenges of finding sobriety amid COVID-19, Ludovic Nicolaidis said virtual events couldn’t compare with the feeling generated by sitting in the same room as like-minded folks, meetings he said “gave me more of a purpose.”

At the same time, Smith said running the virtual meetings has allowed him to sharpen particular skills, especially when it comes to reading people, in addition to expanding his network, which has made him a better resource for others also in recovery. “It gave me all these points of reference, like, ‘Hey, my buddy Haley in Portland, she did that,’ or, ‘I know a guy, Peter, who’s been sober 40 years and ran restaurants in Beverly Hills,’ and that’s a resource,” Smith said. “It’s people, connections. So if someone says, ‘I’m moving to Sonoma County and I’m worried I’m not going to know any sober people.’ Well, I know Brian. He lives out there. He can hook you up. It’s those connections. It’s knowing you’re not alone, and you’re not unique — in the best way possible — and there are people across the country who have been doing this a long time, and who are there to help you.”

For Smith, the in-person meetings, which will take place at 11 a.m. each Sunday at Cameron’s American Bistro, have returned at the ideal time. With restaurants quickly ramping back up to business as usual as vaccine rates increase, many workers who became sober during the pandemic are just now getting a taste of the challenges to come.

“A buddy of mine made $800 on a Saturday night, and he’s newly sober, and he walked out of that restaurant at 1 in the morning with $800 in his pocket, like, ‘Now what am I supposed to do?’” said Smith, who also used the time during the pandemic to found a consulting company, Sobriety, Shaken, which is aimed at partnering with bars and restaurants to improve conditions for workers, and thus better the overall customer experience. “And that’s a unique problem right now, where a lot of people got sober during the shutdown, and they don’t know what it’s like to work in a restaurant sober, or what it’s like to walk out at the end of a shift with money in their pocket. So I think there are going to be some unique challenges for the newly sober as the rubber starts to meet the road. It’s like, you made $600 tonight. Now what are you going to do?”