Charleston's restaurant industry faces its drinking demons 

Up All Night

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first part in an occasional series looking at the challenges that people in Charleston's food and beverage industry face on a daily basis. Click here to read more about our decision to run this story.

At about 4 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2011, two employees of downtown restaurants collided in their vehicles on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. One of them died in his car, which went up in flames after hitting a concrete barrier. The other survived with minor injuries but was charged with felony driving under the influence after his blood alcohol level was measured above the legal driving limit.

As the sun rose that Saturday morning and officials worked to clear the smoldering wreckage from the bridge, many members of Charleston's food and beverage industry awoke to learn that a dear friend was gone forever, while another could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted. The victim, Quentin Miller, was a bartender at Henry's in downtown Charleston and on Seabrook Island. The other man, Adam Joseph Burnell, was an assistant manager at Husk Restaurant. Miller and Burnell were both 32 years old at the time.

Mickey Bakst, the gregarious general manager of the Charleston Grill, knows Burnell and describes him as a caring, motivated worker.

"He is a sharp young kid," Bakst says. "Unfortunately, Adam made a mistake. Adam got drunk. And there's no rational choices when you're drunk. You don't have an ability, and it's tragic, you know? Quentin Miller's life has been lost. Adam's life has been irrevocably changed."

Miller's family is now suing Neighborhood Dining Group, the owners of Husk, saying they allowed Burnell to drink to excess on company property before he attempted to drive home to Mt. Pleasant. The family has requested a jury trial in the suit, and their attorney, Carl Pierce, says they hope to bring certain problems to light in the food and beverage industry.

"These lawsuits, a lot of people think they're about money, but this family wants things to change," Pierce says. "They don't want bars and restaurants serving drinks two hours after closing time and to three times the legal limit." Pierce is keeping his witnesses and evidence under wraps until the trial, but he says an investigation will show that the Neighborhood Dining Group, the company that also owns McCrady's and Queen Anne's Revenge, allowed Burnell to drink for free on their property after Charleston's strictly enforced 2 a.m. closing time for bars and restaurants serving alcohol. If Pierce is right, the court case could point to broader problems of alcohol abuse in the Holy City restaurant world.

"I think the investigation will reveal the alcohol was free," Pierce says, "and it's not the first time."

David Howard, president of the Neighborhood Dining Group, says he is constrained from commenting about the lawsuit. "However, we look forward to presenting the accurate facts as they relate to the events surrounding the evening in question," he says. "Our prayers continue to remain with Mr. Miller's family."

Bakst, who has spent most of his 60 years in the business, vehemently denies that workers in the food and beverage field — or F&B, as it is called colloquially — are heavier drinkers than employees of other industries in Charleston. In his seven years at the helm of the Charleston Grill, he has only had to address a serious drug or alcohol problem with one employee. "For every drunk in the restaurant industry, I maintain that there's one in every other industry. I really do," he says.

And Bakst knows an alcoholic when he sees one. If anyone asks, he will readily tell the story of how alcohol took him to the depths of hell, starting in 1965 at age 13. In his twenties, he owned and managed several restaurants in California and Michigan, all while living with an alcohol habit that drove him to use cocaine just to keep functioning. He bottomed out in December 1982 in Newport Beach, Calif., where he drank for three straight days and holed himself up in a hotel room. After that brush with death, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and started back at the bottom rung, waiting tables for a year.

"Now I've been sober 29 years, and I've had the greatest fucking life you've ever dreamt of. You wish to have a life as good as mine," Bakst says. "I've been to the greatest parties, been part of the greatest events, and I've never had to drink."

Bakst has found a way to function and even thrive as a recovering alcoholic in an environment where he is surrounded by alcohol. Did the restaurant business drive him to drink in the first place? He doesn't think so. But when it comes to the question of whether alcoholism is rampant in Charleston's commercial kitchens and dining rooms, others both inside and outside of the industry beg to differ.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK

Ken Burger was right — sort of

When it comes to writing about the supposedly booze-fueled lifestyle associated with Charleston's restaurant business, Ken Burger's tale is a cautionary one. His September 2010 Post and Courier column titled "Getting trapped in F&B" earned him a heap of scorn from the people whose work he called "demeaning."

"Needless to say, it's a young person's game," Burger wrote, drawing derision from veterans like Bakst, whom Burger later lumped into the category of "lifers," people who keep saying they'll leave the business but never do. "Some work odd hours, tend to party together into the wee hours of the morning, spend what money they made that night before the sun comes up, wake up with a hangover, then start all over again." Soon after the column ran, a chalk-written message appeared on the signpost in front of the Tattooed Moose, a popular bar among restaurant workers, that simply read, "YOU SUCK KEN BURGER." After reading the column, Bakst sent the P&C a fiery letter to the editor, which he claims took him no more than three minutes to bang out.

"Yes, Mr. Burger, you are right about some things," Bakst wrote. "There are drug and alcohol abusers in our industry, there are people who party all night long, and there are those who never finish. I ask you, though, are there any industries where those things don't exist?"

To be fair, while Burger painted the industry with some broad brushstrokes, statistics are on his side about alcohol abuse. According to a March 2011 Research Triangle Institute report, national studies have shown that 18- to 25-year-old restaurant workers are at the highest occupational risk for substance abuse of any age or occupational group. One 2007 study from the Department of Health and Human Services showed that 12.1 percent of adults working in food preparation and serving reported heavy alcohol use in the previous month, compared to 8.8 percent across all populations. The study also showed that food service workers were more likely than employees of any other industry to report illicit drug use in the previous month.

But Sylvia Rivers, community outreach and education coordinator for MUSC's Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs, says doctors there are skeptical of the data they've seen, which in some cases could be impacted by factors like age — since there are a lot of young employees in F&B. She says there is a cultural belief in the recovery community that an F&B job will increase the chance of relapse, but the hard data isn't there, she says.

More dramatic than the broad multi-industry reports, one phone survey of nearly 1,300 employees ages 18 to 29 at a national restaurant chain found hazardous drinking problems among 80 percent of males and 64 percent of females. Dr. Roland Moore, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation who co-wrote the report in 2009, also worked in three Southern California restaurants in the 1980s, when cocaine was in vogue. The popularity of various party drugs waxes and wanes, "but alcohol is a constant," he says.

The restaurant in the study had a comprehensive policy prohibiting alcohol consumption by workers on the job, plus regular inventory checks to ensure that drinks didn't "evaporate." The drinking was mostly happening after hours, and employees who reported having hangovers at work were also more likely to report getting in fights and arguments at work.

No alcoholism studies have been conducted specifically about high-end restaurants like Husk or about Charleston in particular, but nationally, among restaurant workers in general, it is safe to say that drinking is a serious problem.

A drink to mend fences

In the sweaty embrace of a Lowcountry summer, at the peak of tourist season, few places are hotter than the back line of a seafood restaurant. Working in a now-closed Folly Beach seafood joint several years ago, Ryan Woodruff was well aware that tempers could flare amidst the hiss of fryers in the kitchen.

"Even working with people you've worked with for a long time, you can get very frustrated with each other," says Woodruff, who worked off and on in Charleston and Myrtle Beach restaurants for about three years total. "At the end of a really tough shift, it's easy to have a few drinks and mend your fences, because you know you're going to work together another five shifts this week."

The Folly restaurant scene in the early 2000s was not much different from Myrtle Beach's, Woodruff says. At Folly, he saw social drinking, often at the Chill and Grill, which at the time stayed open until about 4 a.m. many nights and saw regular crowds of F&B employees coming in after work. And then there were the house parties, some of which lasted until well after dawn. Woodruff went to a few parties during that time period, but he was baffled by some of his co-workers who kept up a binge-drinking routine seemingly every night and came in to work with little or no sleep.

"There was almost a machismo kind of thing going on of that hard partying after work and still being up the next day and doing your job," Woodruff says. "Some of the people, I'm wondering literally, 'How in the world do you do that?'"

The idea that social interactions in the restaurant industry can foster heavy drinking has been the subject of academic research. In another of Roland Moore's studies, titled "Reciprocal Patronage Networks Among Food Service Workers as Risks for Heavy Drinking," Moore and a team of researchers observed that F&B workers from different restaurants in a city often build a sense of community through practices like generous tipping and "comping," or the giving of free food and drinks. "It's respect and it's karma ... the creed of the server," one interview subject said in the report. In other words, if you give another bartender a few free shots, he or she might be inclined to do the same for you in the future.

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK

The report identified certain types of employees who were less likely to participate in reciprocal patronage networks — particularly older workers and single mothers — but on the whole, the researchers found that the practice of inter-restaurant generosity could foster heavy drinking habits.

"Although it is likely that those who are inclined to heavy drinking may be attracted to employment in the restaurant industry, the working environment undoubtedly plays an important role," Moore and his colleagues wrote.

Woodruff met some restaurant workers he would classify as transient — the type of people who could drift into town with no recommendations, work in the kitchen until they got fired, and then move along to the next job. But he also met many employees who, like himself, needed the steady income to chase down a dream. He remembers one friend who worked in a restaurant for a year and a half while waiting to get into chiropractic school. Woodruff came to the Charleston area to pursue a master's degree in health administration at the Medical University of South Carolina, and after he graduated from the program in 2003, he had a hard time finding employment in his field. So he returned to the field he knew, taking a kitchen job that a friend offered him just around the corner from where he was living on Folly Beach. Today, he works for Implementing Technologies, an IT company that does business with medical care practices.

According to a 2008 report by the National Restaurant Association, about one-half of all adults have worked in a restaurant at some point in their lives, and 32 percent had their first job in a restaurant. But a restaurant like Husk is not a workplace for students and drifters. It is no small thing to work under James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock in a restaurant that has made numerous appearances on national best-of lists since opening just a year and a half ago.

The lawsuit against Husk could become complicated if, as the plaintiff has asserted, Adam Burnell got his drinks for free on the December night when he tried crossing the Ravenel Bridge. No bar tab means no documented record of what Burnell had to drink that night. But there are still ways to prove he had too much to drink and that Husk and its parent company are liable for his actions. Attorney David Savage says a forensic toxicologist could be brought in to testify, extrapolating from a blood alcohol content test at the scene of the accident and Burnell's body weight to determine what his BAC was when he left Husk that evening.

Savage is not involved in the lawsuit, but he has worked on about 15 cases in the past five years involving the state's dram shop laws, which allow certain people to sue bars and restaurants for DUI-related losses if they can prove that the business served alcohol to someone who was either a minor or already intoxicated. In South Carolina, victims of DUI accidents can sue; drunk drivers cannot.

Savage says half of the dram shop cases he has worked on involved bartenders drinking at work or after the city-mandated 2 a.m. closing time.

"If there's any organization that does not understand the oath to tell the truth in a deposition or trial, it's the bar industry," Savage says. In court, he has seen bartenders fudge on bar tabs, and many fall back on the fact that they have been certified through drinking-awareness programs like ServSafe or TIPS. In those cases, Savage often asks, "Do you get tips when you cut people off?" The answer is usually no, he says — nobody gets good tips for doing the right thing and telling a customer he's had enough for the evening.

No matter if the drinks are sold or given away to friends, Savage says any restaurant with a beer and wine permit can be held liable for drinking that happens on its premises. F&B companies that allow employees to drink on the job or after work, whether through a lack of a policy prohibiting it or by turning a blind eye, do so at their own peril.

The midnight happy hour

After picking up his paycheck at Cru Catering, Tate Jefferson stops in at the Recovery Room for a 5 p.m. happy hour, a rarity in his line of work. For restaurant workers, happy hour instead often means the window of time between midnight and bar closing, which City Council set at 2 a.m. in 2003. But on this particular day, Jefferson has the luxury of a wide-open afternoon at the cozy dive bar under the Crosstown overpass.

He says that after an adrenaline-heavy day in the kitchen, he's often looking for a drink.

"After you've been working eight hours and you've put out 150 to 200 tickets, you need the decompression time," Jefferson says. "If you go home, you flip through channels and you're still amped up."

Studies have generally shown that earlier bar closing times mean fewer alcohol-related injuries overall, but in the case of the restaurant industry, Charleston's 2 a.m. cutoff means some F&B employees will try to fit an evening's worth of drinking into two hours' time — or, as the lawsuit against Husk has accused, they will keep the bar open illegally for their friends. Roland Moore is not aware of published reports on the phenomenon of binge drinking during the F&B happy hour, but the topic "cries out for more study," he says.

The closing time is not likely to change any time soon, and house parties will continue to happen at all hours of the night regardless. Ryan Woodruff recalls from his time in the business that there are ways to keep employee drinking in check, though. In the Folly Beach restaurant community, he said, there were some managers who pretended not to notice when an employee showed up to work obviously hungover. Others, however, would tell the employee to go home, drink some coffee, and take a shower.

When Michael Shemtov opened the gourmet sandwich shop Butcher & Bee last fall on Upper King Street, he made a conscious effort to hire people who know the proper time and place to drink and when to rein it in. "I expect that anyone who works for me will enjoy an adult beverage," he explains. "The issue is timing." His store closes late, and he needs a focused staff that can stick around and have the place cleaned up by 6 a.m. When asked if the restaurant industry has an especially bad drinking problem, his response is markedly different than Mickey Bakst's. He laughs and says, "It's funny to hear someone phrase that as a question. Of course."

Shemtov has worked in the industry most of his life, previously opening the downtown Mellow Mushroom in 2001, when he was 23 years old (he is still a part-owner there). On the nights when he tended the bar at the restaurant, he remembers customers who would buy shots and ask him to drink with them, and he would invariably turn them down. Other bartenders have learned the trick of watering down their own drinks — a Jack and Coke that's heavy on the Coke but light on the Jack, for instance.

Shemtov keeps Butcher and Bee open until 3 a.m. on weekends and gets a sizeable crowd of restaurant employees drawn to the late-night food, a rotating selection of exotic sandwiches made with locally sourced meat, produce, and fish. He allows BYOB but does not serve alcohol on the premises.

"For every responsible restaurant manager who gets off work and just wants a glass of wine, you're going to have somebody who should have stopped drinking at midnight and is still drinking at 2 a.m," he says. "I can't be in the business of saying who's sober and who's drunk and who should be allowed to continue to drink."

Frank McMahon, head chef at Hank's Seafood Restaurant, says he knows bartenders who work until 2 a.m. and go home sober. On the other hand, in the 13 years since he opened Hank's, he has had to deal with a few cooks and waiters who had serious drinking problems.

"I'm not their father, but I'll point it out," McMahon says. "You can't change people, but you can, when you see people on a slippery slope, try to bring it to their attention." He sees it as the responsibility of chefs and managers to be on the lookout for staff dependency problems and watch for employees who have clearly been up all night drinking, but ultimately he places the onus on the individual. He has encouraged some employees to go to rehab.

Cooking is the fun part of the work, McMahon says. Managing is the tricky part. "You build a family in the business. You have to know when to step in."

Chicken or egg

When Steve Palmer stopped drinking 10-and-a-half years ago, he had a hard time picturing life after alcohol — especially life in the restaurant industry. As general manager at the Peninsula Grill, he had lovingly collected 1,200 bottles for his personal wine cellar and was studying to become a master sommelier, but he knew that alcohol was also killing him. A co-worker sat him down to talk about his alcoholism, which he says was coupled with a serious cocaine habit at the time.

After getting treatment, he sold off every last bottle of his prized wine collection online, wincing as each one sold. The Peninsula Grill welcomed him back, and he worked there for two more years before moving on to another opportunity. Over the years, he found ways to survive in a world where alcohol is seldom out of arm's reach, and today he has the perhaps singular distinction of owning a craft cocktail bar without having ever enjoyed a craft cocktail. As managing partner at Indigo Road Restaurant Group, he has ownership in the Cocktail Club as well as Oak Steakhouse, O-Ku, and the Macintosh.

Today, he says, he can travel to Napa Valley with business partners to procure new wines for the restaurants without drinking a drop. He can still hang out with employees after work; he just sticks to Red Bull and Diet Coke. He loves wine and makes a sizable part of his living off of it — he just doesn't drink it anymore.

"If you had told me 10-and-a-half years ago, 'Not only are you going to still be in the restaurant business, but you're going to still love it just as much,' I would have told you you were crazy," Palmer says. But 10-and-a-half years out, he has built a small restaurant empire.

For some, the lawsuit against the Neighborhood Dining Group will test the notion that restaurants breed problematic drinking. It suggests that the owners of Husk could have done something to stop Adam Burnell from drinking heavily after work and getting behind the wheel of his Audi convertible. It alleges that the company "created an atmosphere of encouragement, tolerance, and acquiescence allowing employees to serve alcohol to each other after hours." It even goes so far as to say that Burnell had a drinking problem, and the company knew it and did nothing to stop him from drinking that ugly night in December.

In a formal response filed March 15, the Neighborhood Dining Group succinctly denies responsibility for the fatal wreck on the Ravenel Bridge. "Upon information and belief," the lawsuit says, the accident that killed Quentin Miller "was caused by one Adam Burnell. Defendant asserts Mr. Burnell is responsible for Plaintiff's damages."

It is for the court to decide who is responsible for Miller's death. It is for the owners and managers of restaurants to decide who is responsible for addressing alcoholism in the workplace. Palmer has had to fire a few valued employees recently because of drinking problems that interfered with work, and while he knows the battle they face, he stresses personal responsibility.

"I was a typical — I won't say victim of the business, because I certainly don't want to blame my alcoholism on the industry," Palmer says. "I think it's the chicken or the egg: Does the restaurant business create alcoholics, or do alcoholics find the restaurant business?"


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