This article is part of a series on Visionaries. The New York Times selected people from all over the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, from science and technology to culture and sports.
Steve Palmer has opened dozens of restaurants over the course of his career. He knows how to coax the best flavors out of a piece of fish, how to light a restaurant so all the customers look good and how to make a couple celebrating an anniversary feel special.
But 18 years ago, he was so strung out on alcohol and cocaine that his boss at the restaurant where he worked gave him an ultimatum: Get treatment or get fired.
He chose rehab. Now, Mr. Palmer, 50, is the managing partner of Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which employs about a thousand people in 20 restaurants and bars that stretch across four Southern states and Washington.
His focus shifted in 2016, when an employee and friend who had been struggling with addiction and depression committed suicide. Mr. Palmer realized that many people in his business faced addiction and mental health issues, but few wanted to talk about it.
He teamed up with Mickey Bakst, the general manager at the Charleston Grill on King Street in that city, to create Ben’s Friends. The addiction support group is named after Ben Murray, the young man who had killed himself.
Meetings are loosely based on the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, but Ben’s Friends is tailored to be a support group specifically for cooks, waiters and others in the hospitality business. There are chapters in 11 cities, with new groups in New York, Seattle and New Orleans in the works.
More broadly, Mr. Palmer’s work has helped start new conversations about mental health and self-care in the hospitality industry.
Fresh from his wedding and a Paris honeymoon, Mr. Palmer spoke by telephone from his home in Charleston, S.C.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
“I started as a line cook and I don’t know that I was very good, but I fell in love with taking care of people.”
What would you like readers to know about the work you do?
There’s been a lot of negative stuff associated with our industry in the last couple of years with #MeToo and the deaths of people like Anthony Bourdain and a lot of other, much younger chefs. I would like for the readers to understand the sense of community we have now. People that need help are finding it, which has a lot less to do with me or anything I’m doing. It’s just sort of organically happening in our industry. There was already a strong esprit de corps in our business, but now people are finding that in the same way through recovery. It’s a really nice starting point.
What inspired you to go into the food business?
I started as a line cook and I don’t know that I was very good, but I fell in love with taking care of people. I realized that in 1990, when we opened Magnolia’s in Charleston. And you know, many an alcoholic would say they’re people pleasers — I chief among them. I really love taking care of people and I’ve never, ever lost that. I never saw serving people as a second-class job. I always felt like it was an honor and that there was nobility in service.
Tell me the story behind Ben’s Friends.
I may get a little emotional. Ben came to South Carolina to help us open this restaurant. I hadn’t seen him in a long time and he walked in and said, “Hey, I’ve cleaned up my act.” I didn’t ask a lot of questions because, let’s be honest, in the restaurant business there’s a pretty wide range of what that could mean. He looked good. Depression was not a word that I would associate with Ben.
We were in the kitchen 18 hours a day from 7 in the morning to midnight. I never saw Ben take a drink in the kitchen. On opening night, there were three chefs in recovery with five years or more of sobriety, so any one of those guys, myself included, would have done anything to help Ben if he would have just said, “Hey I can’t seem to stay sober.”
We didn’t even know he was struggling. I was so struck by that when I found out he shot himself in that hotel room. I was dumbfounded that this guy was struggling at that level and nobody knew. That was the moment for me. I was like, we have to start talking about this.
“I knew we had to change the cultural norm in our industry, we had to make it O.K. to ask for help.”
Is the culture of the hospitality business different when it comes to addiction?
That’s the question I asked myself. What was it about the culture of the kitchen, the machismo where we work hard and we go out and get obliterated every night and then we do it again the next day, seven nights a week? I mean, I did that for 20-something years. But I always showed up for work. That was my badge of honor.
What was it with Ben that he didn’t think he could ask for help? Was it just him as a person or was it the culture of our industry? I knew we had to change the cultural norm in our industry, we had to make it O.K. to ask for help.
Is the culture changing?
I had no idea I was doing this at a time when, for a lot a reasons, there would be this willingness to have the conversation and be honest about what it’s like for people in the industry. There’s an issue. We all know it. We have known it for years, really. And we’ve made it O.K. to just keep doing it. But people are dying. It’s not O.K.
How has going through Ben’s death and the success of Ben’s Friends changed how you approach your restaurant work?
We’ve done some things around mental health as a company. This is going to sound really simple, but one of the things we did was do away with the shift drink, that sort of time-honored tradition of let’s all sit at our bar and have a drink after work. I say this all the time: I’m not anti-alcohol. Alcohol is not bad, it’s just bad for me. I’ve been very careful along my journey about not projecting my sobriety on the company.
We’re just trying to care for our employees at a deeper level. We’ve started a home loan buying program where we give employees the down payment for their home interest free for three years. We make no money on it whatsoever. And we’re about to launch a tuition match for hospitality management or culinary training programs.
We’re just trying to care about our employees more. Beyond just sobriety, we’re just trying to humanize the industry as much as we can.
“I see myself serving the people of the industry more than our guests.”
How do you define success for yourself now? Is it financial? The satisfaction of creating a well-run restaurant?
Listen, I started with no money. I have investors and they’re great guys. This is a business and we run it well. The Indigo Road restaurant group is certainly the foundation. I love my day job. I still love serving people. But I’ll tell you what turns my light bulb on more than anything now is Ben’s Friends. I see myself serving the people of the industry more than our guests. That feels really good to me. It has given me a purpose.
I get emotional every time I talk about it. Just to be in a small part, any small part, of somebody getting off drugs and alcohol and finding help means everything.
I just love restaurant people. I think we’re the best people. Yeah, we’re dysfunctional and broken but we’re so good. We’ve got big hearts and messy emotions but we’re good people.