Steve Palmer is an accomplished man. He’s the managing partner and founder of the Indigo Road Hospitality Group, which operates a dozen restaurant concepts in six cities, including Oak Steakhouse, O-Ku Sushi, Colletta, Donetto, Tiny Lou’s and Sukoshi in Atlanta.
But, Palmer will be the first to tell you that he’s lucky just to be alive.
Drug and alcohol addiction began at his home in Chamblee when he wasn’t yet a teenager, most likely triggered by the traumatic deaths of his adoptive father and grandfather. Addiction proceeded to consume his life for decades. It led to estrangement from his family, homelessness, a failed marriage. Working in restaurants, he easily fed his need for booze and drugs — caring for patrons while letting his own well-being suffer.
Thanks to intervention by his restaurant colleagues, as well as his own efforts in recovery, Palmer is a success story and alive to tell the tale.
It’s a sobering story that the native Atlantan recounts in his newly published memoir, “Say Grace: How the Restaurant Business Saved My Life” (ForbesBooks, $24.99). And, it’s a tale that Palmer, now 50 years old and 18 years sober, tells because he doesn’t want what happened to him to happen to anyone else.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, using data from 2008 to 2012, food-preparation and service-industry workers had the highest rate of illicit drug use (19.1%) among all industry categories, and the second highest rate of heavy alcohol use (15.9%).
“We are literally killing ourselves with alcohol and drugs,” Palmer writes in “Say Grace.”
Unfortunately, Palmer was too late to save one of his own employees, Ben Murray, whose struggle with alcohol ended in his death, alone in a South Carolina hotel. The talented chef’s tragedy prompted Palmer to found Ben’s Friends, a support group for food and beverage industry workers struggling with substance abuse and addiction.
Established in 2016, with chapters in Charleston and Atlanta, Ben’s Friends continues to expand to cities around the country, and will number 16 chapters by early February. (The Atlanta chapter meets at noon Mondays and Thursdays at O-Ku Sushi in west Midtown. For details, visit bensfriendshope.com.)
“For too long, our industry has obeyed a dangerous code of silence,” Palmer writes in “Say Grace.” “The industry normalizes drinking and using drugs as a way to deal with the stress of working in the industry. The code prevents us from questioning a coworker’s relationship to alcohol and drugs … I am happy to say that, slowly, this is finally changing.”
“Addiction has always been the elephant in the room. Thankfully, the industry is having the conversation,” Palmer said as we chatted in the lounge at Tiny Lou’s in the Hotel Clermont (whose alcohol-free tarragon-limeade is his go-to drink). “No one likes to have an uncomfortable conversation, but I think we have to have more of them.”
Broaching the topic of addiction with someone you suspect of having problems with drugs and alcohol, he said, “might plant a seed. The worst thing we can do is not saying anything.”
When Palmer finally got out rehab and onto what became a lasting path of recovery, one of his greatest fears was that he couldn’t have a career in the restaurant industry without drinking. “I eventually came to realize that giving up alcohol didn’t have to mean giving up my community. It is possible to go out with coworkers and not drink,” he writes in the book. “The alcohol and the camaraderie are not one and the same. You can have one without the other.”
“I see it in our industry every January: chefs saying, ‘I’m not going to drink this month,’” Palmer told me. In addition, he noted, the monthlong break from booze, known as Dry January, has morphed since into a lifestyle choice known as “sober curious” or “sober sometimes.” And, bar programs are responding to the increased demand for thoughtful alcohol-free concoctions.
In the early days of Palmer’s recovery, sitting at the bar while sipping something other than booze wasn’t nearly as accepted as it is now.
“People didn’t know what to say,” Palmer recalled. “The worst thing you can do to a nondrinker is to say, ‘Is this bothering you that I’m drinking?’ Act normal. Be yourself. Welcome us to the table and don’t make a big deal about the fact that we’re not drinking.”
As Palmer continues to push for positive cultural changes in the industry he fell in love with, he entered a new chapter in his personal life this fall when he married wife Shelby and became stepfather to her 9-year-old daughter, Madison. It’s a chapter he couldn’t have fathomed 34 years ago, when he lived on the streets of Atlanta and slept in an abandoned house. Those old stomping grounds from his darkest days are seen in a new light from high up in his Midtown condo.
“It’s such a juxtaposition,” Palmer said of where his life’s journey has taken him.
As he writes in his book, “I am able to walk down paths that never seemed imaginable before.”
For that, he has every reason to say grace.
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