Substance Abuse in the Restaurant Industry Q&A

Late hours and easy access to alcohol and drugs make the restaurant industry conducive to substance abuse. How four industry pros deal with this thorny issue.

How do you deal with the on-the-job hazard of substance abuse?

Nearly every chef or restaurateur has a similar story to tell, one that usually doesn’t end well: a cook, server, manager or someone else in the business caught in the grips of alcohol or drug abuse. It’s a real on-the-job hazard without an easy solution.

The nature of the restaurant business is conducive to it—late hours and easy access to alcohol and drugs, all widely acceptable among peers. While the setting won’t change, seasoned operators have  experiences to share.


Mary Stanley, Owner-Pastry Chef; The Turtle Restaurant, Brownwood, Texas 

“I have had three chefs work for me who were all terrible alcoholics. I would end up firing all three as their descents into alcoholism worsened. I needed a chef and couldn’t find a replacement. It was hellish. I felt beaten. I delayed opening our wine bar until after I could get rid of [one of the chefs] on account of his behavior and fear of what would happen to our stock of wine. I even considered closing for a while. 

"I have to decide when they’ve crossed my limit and when they do, I have to fire them no matter how inconvenient it is for me."

--Mary Stanley

“I sometimes worry about my current employees drinking to excess. I can’t be their mom, though I do express my concern, which has been greeted by ‘everyone in the industry does it’ and ‘I can hold my liquor.’ It is hard for someone who is a very passionate bartender or sommelier to not overdo it a bit. So, when does overdoing it a bit become alcoholism? The answer is different for different people, but it isn’t right when you start to harm yourself and it affects the quality of your work and relationships with others. 

“My feeling now is you can’t make anyone reform. They have to do that work themselves because they finally want to. It has to come from within and it has to be a very strong desire on their part. I have to decide when they’ve crossed my limit, and when they do, I have to fire them no matter how inconvenient it is for me. The limit is lateness and whether or not they are able to be consistent in the quality of their work; and no drinking or being high on the job.”


Joseph Comfort, Director of Culinary Operations; Lebanese Taverna Group, Arlington, Va.

“In 2005, I had a cook who was constantly late to work. He had a persistent ‘allergy problem’ and frequently napped in the bathroom during his shift. I had never encountered a bonafide junkie before and didn’t know what heroin addiction looked like. He was by far my most intelligent cook—his palate was developed, he understood how food worked and had a very keen ability. His employment was less than six months.

" have an obligation to all of your employees—and yourself—to make healthy choices for your business." 

--Joseph Comfort

“Four years later, he called me about an ad for a part-time line cook. He knew I ran a zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol and was looking for a job that was in line with that. We agreed on a schedule that allowed for him to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings. As his recovery was on track, we increased our expectations of each other. Now, five years clean, he is in a leadership position and is a mentor to other recovering addicts.      

“It’s important to understand that you don’t solve the problem. The addict is the solution and they must do it for themselves. As an operator, you have an obligation to all of your employees—and yourself—to make healthy choices for your business. These experiences have made us better at screening potential hires, checking references and requiring more of our team members. With recovering individuals on our team in leadership roles, we are better equipped to sniff out and proactively deal with the issues before they become problems for our operations.”


Brian Carr, Sous Chef; Father Martin’s Ashley, Havre de Grace, Md.

“I started as an alcoholic and an IV drug (heroin) user. I tried to go to college but it didn’t work. So I found a lifestyle conducive to abuse where it’s looked upon as okay to have a couple drinks because you work in a high stress environment. 

“As a chef, owners would sit me down. People would say, ‘We are worried about you.’ But I wasn’t ready to stop drinking and drugging. You can offer treatment but most people in their addiction would resent it and say, ‘How dare you accuse me? You’re sitting here drinking with me.’

“One day I just woke up and said, ‘I’m done.’ There was that one moment of opportunity, and my family jumped on it and I went to rehab. For me, I had to get away from the restaurant industry and build a foundation of sobriety first. I’ve worked in restaurants since I’ve been sober, but I had to be myself first. If I was struggling, there were people who would be just a phone call away.

“I’m in what I call long-term recovery. It’s been five years of sobriety. I feel lucky that I had this great opportunity to work here and follow my love for cooking and not have all the temptations.”


Jeremy Caprari, Executive Chef; Beaver Run Resort and Conference Center, Breckenridge, Colo. 

“You got to put your heart out there for your guys—they’re your family. I’ve been really lenient with cooks over the years; they’ll slip into drinking heavy or drugs. You don’t want to throw them on the street and create even a bigger problem, so try to be supportive. Lend as much support as you can, but understand that you can’t control it. Find a support team. Maybe not people at the restaurant, but those outside of work. 

"You have to look at the whole picture."

--Jeremy Caprari

“But if you find someone hammering down a bottle of vodka in the walk-in that is supposed to be used for a sauce, then it can’t be tolerated. You have to look at the whole picture. 

“There’s a no drinking policy at the hotel, on- and off-duty. After a shift, there are a lot of people who just want a drink to relax or get together with friends. With that kind of policy, you end up pushing locals away, but it minimizes responsibility for the hotel and restaurant. If you have grown adults who can handle a drink, you want your restaurant to be a place where your sales team and wait staff can come down for a drink and enjoy themselves. If they’re not allowed, they can’t be your ambassadors for the business.” 

Common Signs of Drug Abuse 

Whether it’s alcohol or illicit drugs, the red flags of abuse are similar. Here are some common warning signs:

  • Neglecting responsibilities after repeated warnings
  • Impaired coordination, inability to work
  • Deterioration of appearance, personal grooming habits, bloodshot eyes
  • Slurred speech, tremors
  • Excessive absence or decline in work performance
  • Unexplained change in attitude, severe mood swings
  • Lack of motivation, lethargy or anxiousness, paranoia
  • Unexplained and repeated absences

Remember, these signs can indicate other issues so be sure to delve further through Alcoholics AnonymousNarcotics Anonymous or Al-Anon, a support resource for family and friends affected by drug and alcohol abuse.