Indigo Road’s Steve Palmer wants to help Atlanta restaurant workers battle substance abuse

The restaurateur, who created support group Ben’s Friends, hopes to launch a local chapter
Steve Palmer
Steve Palmer owns over fifteen bars and restaurants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and, Tennessee.

Photograph by Andrew Stephen Cebulka

The Indigo Road Restaurant Group’s Steve Palmer, an Atlanta native, owns fifteen bars and restaurants in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia—including Atlanta’s Oak Steakhouse, Colletta, and O-Ku. Palmer says his most important work, though, is for Ben’s Friends.

The 501(c)(3) is named for chef Ben Murray, Palmer’s friend and colleague who battled addiction and depression. Murray ultimately committed suicide last year, and Palmer founded Ben’s Friends soon after.

“At its core, it’s a group of people who have a common goal of trying to stay sober,” says Palmer, who has himself been in recovery for 15 years. The group meets every Sunday at an old cigar warehouse in Charleston. “It’s a safe space to talk.”

Though the organization is relatively new, Palmer receives calls daily from people all over the country who either want to join or start groups in their own cities. Chef Scott Crawford offered to help launch a Raleigh chapter this month, and Palmer, who is about to open a Tuscan-style Italian restaurant called Donetto in the Westside’s Stockyards development, hopes to create a chapter in Atlanta, too.

Can you share a little but about your own history with alcoholism?
I used to go out and do 20 shots and a line of cocaine and then be at work the next day. That is seriously screwed up.

The final straw: I was running a restaurant in Charleston called Peninsula Grill. I was doing an enormous amount of cocaine, and I had gotten to the point where I was physically addicted to alcohol, like I had to drink just so I could shave, because my hands were shaking otherwise. I physically could not stop drinking, even though I wanted to.

That’s the cruelest thing about alcoholism: It’s the only disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. Cancer patients aren’t walking around saying, “I don’t have cancer.” But alcoholics certainly walk around saying they’re not sick.

Anyway, I went to work and I was throwing up. I was having hallucinations. I was lying on the floor and—I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live—the owner of the restaurant came to me and said, “So you have a choice today. You can either go to rehab, or you can go clean out your office. We have a bed ready for you, but you need to get up, go home, pack, and go right now. What’s your decision?” Every fiber of my being was like “Okay, there’s a bar right around the corner. I’m going to go do a shot. I do not want to deal with this situation. Go ’eff yourself.” But for whatever reason, I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

Do you still struggle with it?
Every once in a while I still want to have a drink, but I’m under no illusion that I could handle it. Because I wouldn’t have just one drink; you wouldn’t see me for four or five days. I’d go buy a big bag of coke and lock myself in a room.

So there are moments when I want an escape and when I think it would be really nice to have a glass of wine, but all that really tells me is that I still have a disease and I’m not cured.

Why did you start Ben’s Friends?
Sadly, my friend Ben killing himself spurred me into action, but I’m certainly not the only one who’s seeing that people in our industry are not okay. I mean, Angus [Brown] was 34 years old. If we’re evolved human beings, we have a responsibility to care for each other, right?

When I got sober, I didn’t know anybody else sober in the [restaurant] business. I remember going to a restaurant opening in Charleston after having been out of rehab for two weeks. Everybody I had been partying with [before I got sober] was there, and it was like the needle scratched across the record when I walked in. Nobody was trying to be unkind, they just didn’t know what to say to me. Ben’s Friends provides a place to talk openly and honestly.

[In the restaurant industry, the mentality has always been] “Well, you have to drink to be in this business. You go to work, the adrenaline starts flying . . . how can I not do a bunch of shots to come down from serving 200 people in one night?”

[And the problem isn’t just alcohol.] This isn’t exclusive to the restaurant business, but opiates have made this massive comeback. I’m meeting 24-year-old kids in AA meetings who grew up doing heroin in the suburbs. Pills are also a huge problem. There was a line cook who started coming to Ben’s Friends and she relapsed and died. We went out into neighborhoods looking for her. She was found in her car. She was 27 years old.

Is it the pressure of working in a the professional kitchen that makes substance abuse common in the restaurant industry? Or is it something about the industry culture itself?
I think it’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg, right? Did I find the restaurant business because I was an addicted person and it’s very acceptable? Maybe. But I dislike when somebody says, “Well the restaurant business made me an addict.” I love the restaurant business—I love taking care of people—and I’ve been in it for 30 years. The notion that addiction has to come with that? I don’t accept that.

Asheville chef and restaurant owner Katie Button doesn’t serve alcohol at her staff parties. The first year she instituted the no-booze policy, she got some flak, but it’s been going on—successfully—for three years. Have you implemented anything like this at your restaurants?
Three months ago, we went completely alcohol-free—no shift drinks, even. I stood in front of all of our employees across all of our restaurants and said, “Listen, I want the most emotionally, spiritually whole and physically safe environment for you to be in. That includes not drinking.” I thought I was going to get a lot of pushback, but I got zero. Originally I was hyper-sensitive that just because I’m in recovery, I wasn’t going to make that my employees’ problem.

I wasn’t out there preaching the gospel. But now I kind of am.

I also think leading people is about being emotionally centered yourself. Alcohol impedes that. I think our leadership is healthier, and now we’re attracting people who want that kind of environment.

Do you think the industry is becoming more health conscious in general?
Yeah, I think it’s a collective consciousness right now. People are saying, “We love this business, but it’s got to be a more healthy place for us to be.” Meanwhile, there are all these other issues at play: mental health problems, the long hours, the fact that we’re severely understaffed as an industry. Conversations about living wage, work conditions—I think it’s all part of a larger conversation about health and sustainability in the restaurant world.

What scares me, though, is when people start leaving restaurants behind altogether. I’m a restaurant guy. This is what I do. But I’m watching more and more people drift away, saying, “I’m going to stay in the food business, but I just don’t want to be in a restaurant.” Where will that leave us?

Well, what you’re doing—cutting out drinking on the premises, providing a safe space to talk—is not only helping your employees but, one would imagine, it’s also a smart business decision to have healthy people in the kitchen.
Oh, there’s no question. We have five chefs now who are sober, and not only has the quality of food gone up, but also the level of mentorship and leadership in the kitchen. That’s where I see it most: the morale of the kitchen. The turnover is gone. There’s this excitement because they’re not dealing with somebody who’s been on a bender and is emotionally strung out. There’s a chef in Charleston who just took over in the last six months and he’s two years sober. The difference in the quality . . . it’s the best food we’ve ever served there. You walk in and everybody’s smiling, and there’s this air of calm. There’s not that tension and pots flying and people screaming.

Are you going to create an Atlanta chapter?
This is my hometown: I grew up here, I did a lot of my drinking and drugging here, and, honestly, a lot of my life’s most painful moments happened in Atlanta. I would love to be a part of something that helps heal that. I need to find sober people here to partner with—preferably somebody who been sober for two or more years. I’m happy to host it at any one of our restaurants; we just need someone to be there every Sunday.

Update 4/17/17: An Atlanta chapter of Ben’s Friends has been created! The group will meet each Sunday at 11 a.m at O-Ku (Westside Ironworks, 1085 Howell Mill Road), starting April 23. Palmer himself will lead the first meetings.