At the age of 23, Jack McGarry was named International Bartender of the Year by Tales of the Cocktail (the bar industry's equivalent of the Academy Awards). It was 2013, and as co-founder of The Dead Rabbit, a cocktail bar in New York City's Financial District, he was the youngest person to ever receive the honor. And he, along with the bar, would go on to receive pretty much every award the industry has to offer: the world's best bar, best whiskey bar, best bar team, and many others.
But it was never enough. No matter how many accolades he took home, "My bar wasn’t good enough. Nothing was good enough," he wrote in The Daily Beast. So he turned to alcohol to fill that emptiness. "Things began to spin off the rails at that point. The warning signs were there in the months and years ahead, but I didn’t listen," he wrote. Then one morning, in 2016, he woke up in the hospital; his stomach had been pumped and he had no recollection of the night before. He had wanted to end it all, but thankfully, he made a 911 call that saved his life. His friends, family, and colleagues rallied around him, and that's when he decided to make a change for good.
It took help from sponsors, an outpatient rehabilitation program, and ongoing weekly therapy to get McGarry where he is today: healthy and sober. While he remains completely involved with his work at The Dead Rabbit and BlackTail (another award-winning NYC cocktail bar he co-founded) what he does for the business has changed since his recovery. But he also has a new job: vice president of Restaurant Recovery, an organization that aims to provide free and confidential mental health resources to people in the restaurant and bar industry.
I recently got the chance to chat with McGarry about his involvement with Restaurant Recovery and the work that they're doing, as well as the story behind his own recovery.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
EA: How did you get involved with Restaurant Recovery?
JM: I was at a business development course in Annapolis, Maryland called Acceler8; while there, I met one of the partners involved in the non-profit and he discussed it with me as he was aware of my story. When I got sober, it was always my mission to make it easier for others in our community to come forward and address their addictions and mental health issues. I feel like I've done that somewhat, along with others such as Sother Teague, Giuseppe Gonzalez, Nectaly Mendoza, and Haley Forest, but we've still got someway to go.
Talking is one thing, but getting bartenders and restaurant professionals resources is something different altogether. Restaurant Recovery's aim is to get money to connect the dots, to have resources for our industry folk to go to industry meetings, have health professionals to figure out next steps, and to cover rehabilitation—that sort of thing.
How does Restaurant Recovery work and what are some of its goals?
JM: We're in the early stages in terms of getting a board together and brain storming ideas to raise money. The big thing that I think is a problem is our industry's sensitivity to corporations and non-profits. I think we're going to have to talk regularly about the goals for Restaurant Recovery and who we are, be extremely transparent, and that's when we'll start to see the traction happening. This is something I'm going to be putting a lot of energy into next year because I believe our industry is losing too many talented people.
The aim of the organization is stated above; it's all about giving people in our industry the tools they need to recover and live in in a healthy way. It's great to see people getting into wellness, like meditation, running, yoga—but this doesn't really resolve the greater underlying issues. Most bartenders do not have health insurance or the means to recover and we want to get them that help.
I'm extremely fortunate to have health insurance. That said, my recovery has cost upwards of $50,000 from my initial hospitalization to outpatient rehab and ongoing weekly therapy. A lot of people don't have those resources so it's important to me that we make it easier.
What changes are you hoping to see in the industry?
JM: I mean, I think we're in a good place in terms of talking about mental health in our industry, but my big goal is connecting the dots from talking to doing the work: going to industry meetings, getting folks connected with health professionals, and helping those who need rehab. That's what I'd like to see.
What was the turning point for you in your decision to get sober?
JM: I went out on March 25th, 2016 with the goal to not wake up the next day, to get absolutely hammered and just not be here. Luckily, I woke up the next day in the hospital with my stomach pumped and that was the day I decided to get sober. Enough with the excuses. Enough with the blaming others. It was time to get real. To go towards my demons instead of running away from them. It's been the hardest work I've ever done and still is, but it's easily the best decision I've ever made. I decided I wanted to live and own my life instead of playing the victim.
How do you balance your involvement with the Dead Rabbit (and the industry in general) with your sobriety? What are the challenges?
JM: It's tough. I won't lie. I had to completely overhaul what I do for the business. When I first started Dead Rabbit with my business partner [Sean Muldoon], he was in charge of operations and brand direction and I was in charge of the beverage programs. However, in active addiction, I was very much ego-centric. I wanted to be the best and I wanted everyone to know it. I still want to be the best, but it's for the whole bar and team now—not myself. So I changed my role to assume a lot of Sean's operations. I took some business development courses to figure out how to put better back-of-house systems in place to help our front-of-house staff in terms of recruitment, induction, payroll, inventory, costing, etc.
My focus for Dead Rabbit and BlackTail is to make us a legacy company to work for in-terms of how we train our people. I want to be the best in the world at this. I'm currently training to assume the Bar Manager position at BlackTail for a few months until we find a replacement for our departed colleague so that will be difficult, but I'm excited to bartend for a bit. It's like vacation bartending compared to running two businesses.
How do you hope to see Restaurant Recovery grow as an organization?
For me, it's seeing Restaurant Recovery become a nationwide non-profit helping our industry colleagues all across America. That would be awesome.
For more information on Restaurant Recovery, visit their website here.