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Owners of the Argonaut in Washington, D.C., started Restaurant Recovery, a non-profit organization that helps restaurant workers deal with drug and alcohol dependencies, problems that occur frequently in this industry.

Overcoming Addictions

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By Korsha Wilson September 2015 Employee Management

A D.C. chef and his wife are tackling addiction in the restaurant industry.

In most businesses, having a drink after work may happen at an occasional happy hour, but for the most part revelry that includes alcohol is reserved for special occasions. But in the restaurant industry, post-shift drinks are often the norm, and some restaurants even allow staff to have a drink from the bar after their shift is done. Camaraderie aside, it’s a practice that can become a problem.

Chef Scott Magnuson of The Argonaut, a gastropub close to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., knows first-hand the dangers of alcohol and drug addiction.

After helping open the restaurant, which focuses on craft brews and has a globally inspired menu, Chef Magnuson became addicted to drugs and alcohol, sometimes using both while working his shifts. After becoming increasingly dependent on controlled substances, he realized he needed to seek help and entered a three-week inpatient rehab program for drug and alcohol addiction.

“When I got out of treatment, they told me I’d have to leave the restaurant industry, and that scared me. I’ve been in the industry since I was 14 years old,” Chef Magnuson says.

He didn’t leave the industry. Instead, he returned to The Argonaut and committed to make changes to the restaurant and himself while trying to help others who were in the same situation.

“It seemed like there was nowhere for people who were working in restaurants and dealing with addiction to turn to,” he says.

To help fix that, he and his wife Shaaren Pine started a nonprofit organization called Restaurant Recovery. The non-profit, launched in 2012, helps restaurant workers pay for inpatient rehabilitation services for drug and alcohol addiction. To date, more than 600 individuals have participated in Restaurant Recovery and attended weekly meetings at their D.C. restaurant.

The experience has been eye-opening for Pine, who was a regular guest at The Argonaut before starting to work there. “This was my first restaurant job,” she says. “I had no idea that this culture of alcohol and drug use existed in restaurants.”

In fact, the culture has existed for decades and, in 1993, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas conducted a study on drug abuse that highlighted the prevalence of the problem. The study focused on inpatient and outpatient substance-abuse programs at hospitals in Nevada, Texas, and Colorado. It found that one-third of the patients surveyed worked in the hospitality industry.

However, the study did not explore the unique characteristics of restaurant culture that make work both physically and emotionally taxing. Restaurant Recovery aims to shed light on this culture as a way of promoting awareness about addiction in the industry.

“It’s hard in the industry because you get consumed in restaurant life, and ‘normal’ becomes skewed,” Magnuson says, adding that 12-hour shifts, injuries and burns, and dealing with customers all take a toll on employees. To deal with these pressures on a daily basis, a lifestyle of drugs or alcohol becomes normal.

“Drug use isn’t normal,” Magnuson insists, and he and his wife are trying to spread that message. In addition to starting the NPO, they’ve written a book, Torn Together, about their experiences running The Argonaut and building a relationship while Scott worked on his addiction. “[Writing the book] was very therapeutic and very hard,” he says.

They have also instituted a drug-free policy at The Argonaut, meaning no more post-shift drinks. “It wasn’t a smooth transition, but it was one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Pine says. And Magnuson shares his new motto with all his cooks and staff: “Healthy mind, body, and spirit; it’s the way to go.”