- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - In 2010, Sal and Cindy Rubino closed their Paristown Pointe restaurant for a week while they left town for a much-needed family vacation.

One of their employees, a beloved hostess, had begged them not to shut it down. She worked at The Café six days a week, and as a recovering addict, she needed the job to stay focused, Sal Rubino said.

The Rubinos left anyway. While they were gone, the employee relapsed and was admitted to a treatment center. She later died of heart complications.

“We haven’t closed since then,” Sal Rubino said.

The Café is likely one of a few restaurants in the area that don’t sell alcohol. It’s a decision the Rubinos originally made for their own benefit, but it’s since turned their restaurant into somewhat of a “safe haven” for recovering addicts working in the industry.

The hospitality and food industry has long been connected to drug and alcohol culture, with experts identifying it as one of the top trades affected by substance abuse.

The problem has persisted for decades, and it continues to run rampant nationwide and in Louisville, where addiction has helped cause staff shortages in the city’s booming restaurant scene, local professionals say.

“Nine times out of 10, the most seasoned cooks are addicted to something,” said David Clancy, head chef at the Jeffersonville O’Shea’s. “I can tell you at my restaurant, here, since we opened, I’ve been through a dozen guys.”

HISTORY OF ABUSE

Clancy has been a mainstay in this area’s restaurant scene for years. He’s previously been linked to The Exchange Pub + Kitchen, the Westport General Store and his own restaurant, Bistro New Albany. He was invited to be on season six of Top Chef and is familiar with dozens of chefs and restaurant employees across the region.

Some of them he’s met while undergoing substance abuse treatment at The Healing Place, a nonprofit that runs free recovery programs at two Louisville campuses.

Laci Comer, a spokeswoman for The Healing Place, said a majority of the nonprofit’s clients have worked in the restaurant industry - though she could not provide a percentage.

According to a 2015 study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the hospitality and food services industry is one of the top industries nationwide for reports of alcohol and drug use and substance abuse.

Between 2008 and 2012, the study stated, 19.1 percent of full-time adult employees in the industry reported using illicit drugs within the past month. In addition, almost 17 percent of employees said they’d had a substance abuse disorder within the past year.

“Ultimately, the restaurant business as a whole isn’t the most conducive thing to people who are trying to get sober,” said Ryan Rogers, owner of Feast BBQ and Royals Hot Chicken. “Restaurants are open until late at night. The only way to blow off steam in a town like Louisville after midnight is to go to a bar or something similar.”

Doug Scott, the major gifts officer at The Healing Place, said the culture of the business - with late hours and fast cash - can make it easy for people to feed their addictions.

Addiction is defined as a disease by most medical associations, and it can lead to issues in the workplace such as loss of productivity, impaired decision-making and frequent turnover.

For restaurant owners, those potential problems can make hiring a recovering addict a risk. But with new restaurants opening almost weekly and good employees harder to find, owners are routinely having to take those chances.

“We don’t accept certain behaviors,” Clancy said. “But at the same time, you have to draw a line between the interest of the business and the interest of recovery for the individual. A lot of times those lines are blurry.”

TAKING THE RISK

Every person interviewed for this story said they either knew or worked with someone at a restaurant who died of an overdose.

For Clancy, the most recent instance was a star employee who overdosed in a McDonald’s bathroom with a needle in his arm.

But for every story that ends tragically, there’s another story about a restaurant worker who fought their addiction and won.

“There are a lot of people who are sober who are bartenders,” Rubino said. “Not everybody can do that. But there are people out there that do that every day with success.”

Rubino and his wife have not personally experienced addiction. But Rubino said the late nights and flowing alcohol were strains on the couple’s marriage, and they decided to make a change in 1996.

That year, they opened The Café as a lunch and breakfast spot that wouldn’t serve alcohol. They’ve continued that model for 21 years and have gradually become known as a place that hires people in recovery.

Currently, Rubino said about 80 percent of his dining room staff and some of his kitchen employees are in recovery, with anywhere from a few months to many years of sobriety.

“It sort of happened more by chance or maybe beyond my control,” Rubino said. “… These people are like family. I love them, I want to help them. The thing is, they’re making my life richer. They’re giving me purpose and meaning far beyond the extra money I might make from selling a few bottles of whiskey or drinks or beer or whatever.”

Not every restaurant can create the same environment Rubino has, but Scott said owners and managers can take steps to better assist employees who are dealing with substance abuse.

For one, they can stop enabling employees, he said. For example, if an employee often arrives hungover or late, a manager could have a discussion with that person instead of just scheduling them to start later in the day.

In addition, owners and managers should not be afraid to help an employee seek treatment and should be open to giving them a second chance, Scott said.

“You don’t have to be their friend when you’re their boss, but you should care about them,” said Kevin Ashworth, executive chef at 610 Magnolia. “Sometimes all someone needs is a little encouragement, a little push in the right direction. If everyone was just a little bit more human, then I think some of those problems could get fixed.”

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Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com

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