Drug Use in the Food and Beverage Industry Under Scrutiny

Restaurant kitchen

In a nation where our drug problem grows by the year, we’re starting to see drug use and alcohol misuse crop up in businesses. Entire industries have been affected. We hear about office accidents, workplace injuries, falls, and so on, often caused by intoxication. We hear about employees getting fired for failing drug tests or about people losing their jobs for coming into work with alcohol on their breath.

“… Nearly 12% of restaurant workers engaging in heavy alcohol use—defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in under two hours for five consecutive days—and 19.1% having used illicit drugs in the past month.”

According to Toast: “In 2015, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that the foodservice and hospitality industry had the highest rate of substance use disorders of all employment sectors, with nearly 12% of restaurant workers engaging in heavy alcohol use—defined as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in under two hours for five consecutive days—and 19.1% having used illicit drugs in the past month.”

If the above data is accurate, and a restaurant has at least twenty employees, two of those employees are likely struggling with a drug problem., and in reality, the number is likely a lot higher. How did substance abuse become so prevalent in restaurants, and what might we do about it?

Substance Abuse in Food Service

It is no mystery that substance abuse has been a problem in the restaurant industry. There are a few industries in the U.S. that seem more likely to attract substance abuse among workers than others. The website Ranker placed food service at the top of the list for industries that attract substance abuse among workers. According to that site, about 17 percent of restaurant and foodservice workers suffer from drug addiction or alcohol misuse.

Ranker cites several factors for why the foodservice industry is rife with substance abuse: a hectic work environment, extremely long nights, a fast, frantic work setting, hungry, unhappy customers, unreliable pay, and often unpredictable work schedules. These are just some of the factors that Ranker mentions.

And there is another factor. The restaurant industry is usually a high-turnaround industry. And restaurants don’t typically perform background checks or use drug tests. Because of those factors, people who use drugs and alcohol are often attracted to these businesses. For someone who is continuously being fired for showing up for work high or intoxicated (or for missing work for the same reasons), a restaurant is an excellent place to make a quick buck.

The Restaurant Industry Is Raising Awareness of Its Problem—and It’s Demanding Change

One of the incredible things about the restaurant industry is that, unlike other sectors that might try to hide their faults, the restaurant industry is coming forward and saying, “Yes, we have a problem. Now let’s do something about it, shall we?”

Perhaps the most recognizable of these figures was the late Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain was the celebrity chef who explored the often harsh, behind-the-scenes lifestyle of drug and alcohol use in restaurant kitchens. Bourdain wrote a book about his experiences in kitchens all across the country. It’s called Kitchen Confidential, and it’s available wherever books are sold. Bourdain dived into the dark, untold story of kitchens several times, but that book contains his most thorough discussion of the subject.

Other chefs are taking up the battle cry, shouting for sober kitchens, substance-free restaurants, dry bars, and the like. One case brings us to Portland, Oregon. A man named Gabriel Rucker hosts a local chapter of Ben’s Friends which is a support group, unaffiliated with AA or NA. The simple yet critical focus of the group is to instill support and camaraderie for sobriety into the restaurant industry.

Speaking of Ben’s Friends, Mickey Bakst made news on the other side of the country in the culinary periodical We Are Chefs. Mickey is the co-founder of Ben’s Friends. He is also the general manager of the Charleston Grill in Charleston, South Carolina. Mickey, like so many other food service employees, struggled with addiction for many years. Now he and others are working to raise awareness.

Julia Bainbridge wrote a story in Healthyish that focused on five chefs. Sean Brock, Gregory Gourdet, Gabriel Rucker, Michael Solomonov, and Andrew Zimmern who are all in recovery. They’re all working on various endeavors that lead to promoting sobriety in the restaurant industry. They run sober bars and restaurants and/or devise creative, non-alcoholic beverages for their menus. Some of them still host and attend support groups.

Between the five chefs, they have over a dozen restaurants, plenty of awards, and even a few appearances on culinary TV. And they all share the mission of promoting sobriety in the kitchen.

What Can We Learn from the Movement?

What is occurring in the restaurant industry is unique. I can’t think of a precedent where one sector began to show such solidarity for its compatriots. Or where one industry began to work so hard towards changing the grim nature of what many people believe to be “Just the way it is in the service industry.”

Team of chiefs.

Hundreds, if not thousands of restaurant workers all across the country have joined the movement. Support groups have been launched, sober drink menus added, alcohol-free bars and restaurants have been opened, and chefs have appeared in the media and across the airwaves.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that positive change can be made. An entire industry is trying to reverse a problematic trend, and it’s making progress—slow progress, but progress nonetheless. And that’s something to be proud of.

We should take inspiration from that. If an industry can move towards improvement, then we can undoubtedly seek improvement in our own homes and communities.

If you know someone who is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, the correct solution is to help them get into a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. Residential drug rehabs offer the best, safest, and most effective resources and environments for combatting and winning against a drug problem. Make it your mission to help your loved one get clean through treatment.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.