Steve Palmer wants to help others struggling from addiction to get help
At the height of his addiction, Charleston Grill General Manager Mickey Bakst would wake up, pour a tumbler of Stoli Vodka, top it with grapefruit juice, and do a five-inch line of cocaine. "Then I'd go to work," he says. That was 34 years go. When his heart had to be resuscitated after a binge, it seemed like he might clean up his act, but Bakst fell even further. "I woke up in a straightjacket in an insane institution in Detroit," he recalls. It was after that, that Bakst finally sought help.
"AA saved my life," he says.
, Indigo Road restaurants' managing partner, echoes Bakst's sentiments. "It definitely saved my life too," he says.
For Palmer, life in F&B in Charleston in the early '90s was a never ending party. "Bars stayed open until 6 a.m. and I was there until 6 a.m. — drinking, doing a lot of ecstasy and cocaine," Palmer recalls. A sommelier for Peninsula Grill at the time, Palmer's playboy lifestyle eventually caught up with him.
"Hank Holliday sat me down one day and said, ‘You can either go to rehab or you can clean out your stuff and leave,'" says Palmer. "Everything in me wanted to say ‘Screw you' and go get loaded, but for some reason I agreed to rehab." Holliday loaned him $30,000 and five weeks later Palmer was clean. But it wasn't an easy transition from user to sober.
"I remember the day after I got out, I was on a boat with my buddy and he was trying to convince me that I wasn't an alcoholic," remembers Palmer. The friend then took Palmer to a restaurant opening. "We walked in and it was like a record had scratched and everyone stopped and looked at me." Palmer says at first he felt like a pariah, but eventually he navigated his way, finding a balance between staying sober and working in an industry surrounded by alcohol.
That's the choice Bakst and Palmer want to share with the Charleston F&B community and to show them that you can can overcome addiction and continue to work in the restaurant industry. They know because they're living proof. Palmer has been sober 15 years and Bakst has been sober 34. That's why they've started Ben's Friends, a Sunday support group designed to encourage people in F&B struggling with addiction to seek help.
"We're not here to point the finger at people," says Bakst. "We're just here to be a place to go to provide greater awareness and acceptance of sobriety."
The impetus for the group came after Palmer's long-time friend and chef Ben Murray, who struggled with alcoholism, shot himself in August. "He was working with five other sober people and he didn't talk to us," Palmer says. He doesn't want to see the same thing happen to others.
According to 2015 data by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, individuals working in the food and beverage industry have the highest rates of illicit drug use by industry and a 12 percent higher rate of heavy alcohol use.
Bakst and Palmer say they see it every day.
"Last Friday I had to fire three employees for coming to work drunk," says Palmer. But neither Bakst nor Palmer are ones to preach. They say they can both identify an addict, but until an individual recognizes they have a problem, there's little anyone else can do. However, when an addict is ready to reach for help, Bakst and Palmer want Ben's Friends to be a safe place to go.
The support group is designed similarly to AA, but not affiliated with the organization. "It will be completely anonymous," says Bakst. And there's no pressure to stand up and talk. Rather the group will simply be a space to meet others who are working on or have overcome their addiction.
"We can connect people to therapists and recovery programs," says Bakst. "We want to show people that you can still work in this industry sober."
Ben's Friends will meet every Sunday beginning Oct. 30 in the Cedar Room at 11 a.m. For more information, reach out to Mickey Bakst at firstname.lastname@example.org or Steve Palmer at email@example.com.