Drinks

This Chef Doesn't Serve Alcohol at Staff Parties

August  3, 2016

It’s no secret that substance abuse is an issue in the hospitality industry. And while in 2009 The New York Times reported that this had died down a bit, according to a spring 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, hospitality workers still have the highest rates of illicit drug use by industry and the third highest rates of alcohol overuse.

“Chefs—and all the people we work with—they work really hard… and the partying is something we all do to blow off steam, but it’s not heathy,” said bartender and author Jim Meehan to a group of fellow bartenders during a speech last month. The talk was part of the first annual symposium for P(OUR), an organization formed earlier this year to bring together “bartenders, baristas, sommeliers, brewers, winemakers, distillers, and drinks manufacturers… to discuss the past, present and future of drink,” as its website states. Meehan’s thoughts on responsible service are part of that discussion: “I’m uncomfortable watching this lifestyle sicken and kill my colleagues,” he said.

I don’t think that I should have to party until six o’clock [in the morning] to belong.
Jim Meehan

“After 20 years of not taking care of myself, I can’t party like I used to, and I feel self-conscious about it, and I think that’s fucked up,” Meehan continued. “I don’t think that I should have to party, have to do shots, have to drink with you guys until six o’clock [in the morning] to belong.” He finished his talk with a call to action: to not only recognize that “we’re not treating each other very well,” but also to make healthier choices like drinking less booze and exercising, and to inspire others to do the same.

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North Carolina chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Katie Button is doing just that. She doesn’t serve alcohol at events she throws for the staff of her two restaurants, Cúrate and Nightbell, in Asheville. I’ll let her tell you why in her own words below, and I’d love to hear what you think about it all in the comments section.


There’s this rockstar mentality in our industry. You work late, and once you finish, what do you do? You immediately go to the bar with your colleagues. It even starts at work with this idea of the shift drink. We really commend people for being able to work hard and play hard, which is so wrong. Doing that is hard on your self and your life and your family and your career and your growth.

Katie working a busy shift at her restaurant, Cúrate. Photo by Heirloom Hospitality Group

On top of that, there are a lot of people trying to get their relationships with alcohol under control. It’s more common than we tend to think. So when you throw an employee party that has alcohol, and no one wants to be that person who says “no” to their boss pouring them a drink, you end perpetuating this problem.

The first year of business, we did serve alcohol at staff parties, and we had a couple of people who didn’t make it to work on time the next day and a couple who arrived in really rough shape. We—me, my husband, my mother, and my father, who are the four owners of the restaurants—realized that we didn’t want a staff event that set people up for failure. So now we throw an annual staff party around the springtime to get everybody from both restaurants together, and we don’t serve alcohol there.

What is so wrong with American society and the restaurant industry that we feel the only way we can have fun together is to drink? That is absurd! We’re doing something nice for our staff—we’re paying for the food, we’re organizing the outing—why does alcohol have to be a part of it?

What you see from the diner's point of view at Cúrate. Photo by Heirloom Hospitality Group

I’m sure that some of our employees are less excited to show up at the parties now, and maybe they’re disappointed that we’re not like some of the other places in town, which throw these blowout holiday staff parties with a ton of free alcohol. But I don’t care. We’re trying to create a culture of professionalism in an environment and in an industry that’s been pegged as unprofessional. What with sexual harassment issues and paying inappropriate wages (not paying overtime), there’s been lot of ugly stuff out there. So we’re trying to create a culture where we take care of ourselves and our staff, and we’re going to make decisions based on what we think is in the best interest of everybody. Not including alcohol at parties is a big part of that, offering paid time off is a part of that, and giving health insurance is a part of that. It’s about helping them create a life that they can enjoy.

What is so wrong with American society and the restaurant industry that we feel the only way we can have fun together is to drink?

At first we got some pushback, but over the years it’s become more expected and understood. We made a point to explain that we wanted to throw something that celebrates all of us, and where everybody can bring their wives and their children.

For two years we did a picnic, but this past year we added a kickball tournament and that was an amazing improvement. I hadn’t had that much fun in a long time; it included the bonding and the little bit of competition and it got everybody together in a new way, having fun without booze.

Since removing alcohol from staff functions, we haven’t had the issue of an employee not showing up at work the next day. And I think my team ultimately appreciates working in a professional environment where the rules are very clear. One of my sous chefs said to me really, “You know, Katie, I love working for you because this is the most professional company that I have ever worked for.” Another one of my sous chefs pulled me aside and said, “I love that we don’t worry about people.” We really work hard to create an environment of mutual respect. So when somebody comes to me to say how respected they feel at work, from the ownership down to all the other managers, that makes me feel really good.

How do you feel about a dry holiday party, or a staff party in general? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

7 Comments

Cynthia P. November 12, 2018
I'm so happy to know about a restauratur who is thinking about this. As one who lives with someone who struggles with alcohol I know that creating alcohol-free environments is important for family members as well. Every employee should be able to participate in thier company's events without having to face their biggest demons. Yay for putting the focus on the people.
 
HalfPint August 8, 2016
I see no problem with this policy. It's been implemented in a number of places other than the food and hospitality industry. If the law holds employers and hosts responsible for the actions of their drunk guests, then those hosts and employers have every right to not have alcohol at their sponsored functions.
 
cv August 3, 2016
Great idea, perhaps more chefs should be considering this.<br /><br />That said, I'm not certain that Food52 is the best place to stand on a soapbox and shout it out to the world. This is a highly consumer-focused site. Moreover, it's mostly about home cooking, not restaurant cuisine.<br /><br />Maybe this type of post should be published elsewhere, on a site that focuses on the restaurant business. The best example I can think of is the Inside Scoop section of SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle).<br /><br />Despite the URL, www.sfgate.com/food isn't about food in general, it's about restaurant reviews. The Chronicle has largely abandoned any original content about home cooking years ago and the guy in charge -- Michael Bauer -- is a restaurant reviewer who has zero cooking skills.
 
Alexandra V. August 3, 2016
Understandable, but I feel that forcing others into abstinence, will drive them to rebel and that taking away free will is a little stifling (we are a creative bunch in this industry and I grew up in uber Mormon Ut, where I see that abstinence causes over-consumption) . To each chef their own, and hopefully a change for the better in the industry, that we can be taken seriously as professionals with unique skills and be valued as such. I just feel like if you trust me to work at your business, then you should trust me to make adult choices and have good boundaries(I would be lying if I said I never met out of control cooks, there are some for sure, but not the majority). Interesting read, none the less, I really enjoy reading about what folks in the industry are doing whether or not I hold the same opinion.<br />
 
Sara August 3, 2016
I work in another industry altogether and love this idea. My company hosts a weekend trip for staff and spouses, which is very generous. In the 15+ years I've been with the company, I have seen so many inappropriate behaviors and interactions related to the free alcohol provided. When you are embarrassed for your coworkers after a company event, something has gone wrong.
 
Alexandra V. August 3, 2016
I grew up in a conservative place, so I see it as a bit uptight. I am also a life long industry person, and whether or not the company event has booze, if a person has a drinking problem they will go drink afterward. Sometimes drinking is "social lube" and can relax folks enough to get to know each other, but if you are passing around a handle of "old crow" you may have a problem on your hand. I think its a bit rigid, and my colleagues work regardless of hang overs, so if we have company parties twice a year, and folks want to have a few cocktails good on them. I think it is the nature of the industry that needs to change, company parties with booze isn't the problem, a work force with no work/life balance, many employees without access to health insurance and cash for healthy food, and constant stress without a release contribute to a unhealthy person, not allowing drinking at the company party seems like putting a band-aid on a bullet hole.
 
Author Comment
Julia B. August 3, 2016
I hear you, Alex, thanks for sharing. In Button's mind, removing alcohol from work functions is one of the ways in which she cares for her staff, members of which *didn't* show up to work when hungover, unlike your colleagues. Offering paid time off, providing health insurance, and generally maintaining a high level of professionalism are other ways in which she aims to create a good work environment and a better work/life balance for those operating in that environment. (And of course, if someone has a drinking problem, she or he will find a way, but Button wants to control what goes on under her roof.)