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[ Opinion ]

Saying “No” To Booze While Working in a Restaurant

The lifestyle of restaurant employees is no doubt unique. We’re working on Friday nights and are free Tuesday mornings. Our fridges are filled with to-go containers. Servers have no idea if they’ll be walking out the door with $30 or $300. Everyone develops a thicker skin after dealing with demanding guests and equally frustrated coworkers. Even those with the thickest skins get rattled every once in a while, though, and the common antidote is a stiff drink after—or during—shift.

Restaurants are Tops For Alcohol Abuse

After miners and construction workers, those in the restaurant industry are the heaviest drinkers. As someone who’s been involved in the food industry for nine years, this is surprising. I would have expected us to be at the top. However, mining and construction have an easy explanation: most of their employees are young males, the most at-risk group for heavy drinking. The restaurant industry lacks such a simple explanation.

Work Culture Makes Alcohol Seem Mandatory

However, alcohol is always available in the industry. In fact, it’s encouraged. Many restaurants give a free or reduced-price drink to employees at the end of their shift. Additionally, everyone hangs out at the end of night, decompressing after a long day, complaining about problem customers and apologizing for their mistakes. It can be very therapeutic and bonding, but it can also spell danger for addictive personalities.

It’s also the nature of the industry itself to encourage drinking. We help our guests have a great time all night, so after we lock the doors, it’s our turn. Just like anyone else, we want to socialize and unwind, but since we work until closing, our night has to start a little later than most. And unless you are clopening (closing and then opening the next morning), you don’t work until four the next day, so you have plenty of time to sleep in and chug some Pedialyte. It’s exactly this perk that attracts addicts, while others just get lost in the cycle. Furthermore, it is not as if you can just completely avoid alcohol altogether. Although some manage it, most find it difficult to recommend a cocktail or wine pairing if they’ve never tasted it themselves.

The Tempting, Well-Traveled Road

All of this compounds to produce a steady stream of addicts, in and out of revolving doors. It can be difficult to identify the functional alcoholics, but make no mistake, the industry is full of them. Every once in a while, a coworker will tell me that she’s gone three days without booze, and everyone oohs and ahhs. Some beg for $10 to buy a six pack. After a particularly grueling table, the immediate response is, “Come on, let’s take a shot.” In this environment, alcoholism is the tempting, well-traveled road, and sobriety is full of potholes. You can’t just take a break. Rehab programs, both inpatient and outpatient, can take months to complete, and the industry is built around the fact that everyone is replaceable. Your job is not guaranteed when you come back. And you can’t just stop socializing with friends, or you’ll become bitter and unpleasant, which is definitely not the best way to present yourself in the service industry.

However, it’s not impossible to refuse a drink in the service industry, just difficult. In order to maintain sobriety, you’ll have to overcome several factors, but it can be done with steel will and a couple of guidelines.

Figure Out Another Coping Mechanism

Look, I get it. Customers can be completely unreasonable, and our job is uniquely stressful. Yeah, everyone gets busy at work, but when was the last time your average cubicle worker got yelled at for putting in the numbers too slow? Kitchen and front of house staff routinely shout at each other, whether because the chaos from table seven makes it impossible to hear anything or because this is the third time Michelle put in an order wrong. But your answer can’t be alcohol every time.

Find a TV show you like. Meditate. Complain loudly at the end of the night. You need to find a healthy coping mechanism to replace alcohol. It might be a difficult change at first, but it’ll get easier with time.

Socialize Outside of Work

Just like any other job, the service industry can be a little life-absorbing. It’s also exclusive; there’s no better way to bond with someone than to face a 40-top that walks in without a reservation. Then, afterward, you both sit down with a beer or cocktail and go over how crazy it all was. Your coworkers are the only people who really understand the madness you go through every night.

If you’re trying to quit drinking, you might feel some social pressure to give in. Your coworkers, who are likely a significant portion of your friends, will complain that you don’t hang out with them as much. They will try and peer pressure you into drinking with them. And you will still crave socialization, so it’ll definitely be tempting. To try to avoid this, socialize with your coworkers outside of work. Not only can you steer clear of peer pressure and alcohol, but you’ll get to know them better. If they suggest an alcohol-related activity, recommend something else. Unless they are truly dependent on alcohol, they’ll take the hint. If they are alcoholics, they’re probably not the best influence for your sobriety anyways.

Do Not Drink at Your Place of Work

This is probably the biggest step towards avoiding addiction. If you set up a mental rule that you will not drink at work, even if you’re off the clock, this will reinforce the divide. I’ve seen plenty of bartenders come from one side of the bar to the other, but there ought to be an obvious mental barrier for you. Just because you can pour yourself a drink, doesn’t mean you should. If you start drinking while off the clock, pretty soon it’s only at the end of the night, then it’s only during the last few hours, and then you’re drinking on the clock all through the night. This sort of behavior can be brutal on your body, as well as your brain.

Keep Yourself on a Schedule

It can be too easy to slip into a cycle of drinking and hangovers when you work from 4 p.m. to midnight. What else are you going to do after shift? You need to keep yourself on a schedule. Don’t let yourself sleep in until noon every day. If you know that you’re going to have to get up in the morning and actually accomplish something, then that’ll be one more reason to not start drinking.

Research Your Pairings and Specials

The easiest excuse to drink in the restaurant industry is that you can’t recommend what you haven’t tasted. This is true to a certain extent. However, you can learn secondhand which wine goes well with which dish. There’ll be no shortage of other employees who drink, I guarantee it, and they can tell you what the specialty cocktail tastes like. I don’t eat fish, but when people ask me about our salmon fillet, I am able to answer all their questions through secondhand knowledge alone. You don’t have to indulge your cravings for the sake of your job.

Will Power Is Your Friend

However, this is all dependent upon your own will power. If you can have just a sip, then that’s fine. Alcohol can be consumed in moderation, but the problem with the industry is that it attempts to redefine “moderation.” Figure out your limits, but you might be overconfident after a couple drinks. Refer to a BAC calculator if necessary. If you find yourself unable to stop once you start, ask someone else to define limits for you and then stick with them.

Working is a restaurant is scary because your willpower is your only weapon against addiction. People with other jobs have other obstacles: liquor isn’t always available, they’d be fired if they drank on the job, they have to wake up at six, drinks are expensive, etc. Restaurant employees have none of those barriers, and everyone around them in always drinking, making it especially easy to slide into alcoholism. However, unless we want to surpass construction and mining, we need to get a grip and let go of the bottle soon.