As I pull open the heavy wooden doors of Raleigh restaurant Crawford and Son, I'm taken aback. I've never been inside chef Scott Crawford's eponymous restaurant when it's closed. Instead of the buzzing energy that fills it most nights, a sense of tranquility pervades. Sunlight warms the gray quartz bar, plays up the reddish hues of the exposed brick wall, and makes the walnut chairs glow. When I take a seat at one of the black soapstone tables, it dawns on me that this is the vibe every Sunday morning and Monday afternoon, when Crawford hosts Ben's Friends meetings here.
Crawford started the Raleigh chapter of Ben's Friends—a support group that helps hospitality professionals struggling with substance abuse and addiction—soon after going public with his own story of addiction and recovery last year. The Raleigh chapter was the second, after the founding Charleston chapter, and Ben's Friends now has chapters in Atlanta and Richmond, too. In Raleigh, it provides Triangle food-and-beverage professionals who are battling substance abuse with the support to not only get sober but also stay sober in an industry rife with temptation.
Ben's Friends was founded by two of Crawford's friends, Mickey Bakst and Steve Palmer, Charleston-based hospitality professionals who had long spoken about the need to do something about the industry-wide problem of substance abuse. They weren't sure what that something was, until one of their friends, chef Ben Murray, relapsed and took his own life shortly after a restaurant opening he had worked on with Crawford and Palmer. In the wake of that tragedy, Palmer and Bakst founded Ben's Friends in late 2016 and started holding weekly meetings in Charleston.
"We didn't know how much he was battling. We were devastated," Crawford says. "What we really struggled with was how we were there together and unable to help him. He felt unable to reach out. People do unfortunately suffer alone. They feel ashamed."
That shame is something Ben's Friends hopes to destigmatize. Much like support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, it provides a safe, judgment-free space and practices acceptance and gratitude. Its attendees also have sponsors—someone who has been sober for long enough to support someone else—though the structure is less formal.
"For us, it's more of a system of support and accountability," Crawford says.
Crawford opens each meeting with a reading that underscores Ben's Friends' mission, and he or another attendee introduces a topic for discussion. Although Ben's Friends doesn't shy away from the twelve-step language of AA and NA, it is not central to its approach. Instead, meetings tend to be open, free-flowing discussions, with attendees taking turns sharing their experiences and the particular challenges they face as hospitality-industry workers.
"We're all learning from each other all the time. You hear things that resonate with you for the whole week," Crawford says.
One key way in which Ben's Friends differs from AA and NA is that its founders and attendees are encouraged to speak publicly about their stories and the organization, though anonymity is respected for those who want it. When Bakst and Palmer shared their sobriety stories with the founding of Ben's Friends, it helped give Crawford the strength to share his own story publicly.
"It was scary, but I felt it was necessary just to let people know that it's OK to be vulnerable, it's OK to be flawed," Crawford says. "This is how it works for me in recovery: If you have something great—which to me is sobriety and peace, and it took me so long to find it—you have a responsibility to share it. That is my path to continued sobriety and peace and happiness."
It was 2004 when Crawford made the decision to get sober. He was working at The Woodlands Resort & Inn as executive chef of The Dining Room, which, along with the resort, held a Mobil Five-Star and AAA Five Diamond ratings. By all appearances, he was at the top of his game.
"It was my dream job, and things were going extremely well, other than the fact that I was a drug addict and an alcoholic," Crawford says. "What was life-threatening beyond that was the fact that I had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes about a year prior."
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the body, leading to fatigue, weakness, and weight loss. Coupled with the exhaustion of working long hours, the stress and pressures of pursuing perfection in the kitchen, and punishing his body with substance abuse, everything came to a head. It took a phone call from Crawford's brother, who had been sober for fifteen years at the time, to finally to do something about his crumbling health.
"He called me to do his version of an intervention because he just believed in his heart that I was going to die," Crawford recalls. "That conversation with him was it. I was on my knees and maybe just needed someone to say that to make me believe it. My only path at that point was to walk into a meeting, and I just kept going back with a really strong desire to get clean and sober."
AA and NA helped Crawford get sober, but he was left with questions about how to stay sober and continue working as a chef. A 2015 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that, compared to other industries, hospitality and food service has the highest rates of substance-use disorders and the third-highest rates of heavy alcohol use.
When Crawford got sober, there wasn't a support system specifically for hospitality workers, who face unique challenges during recovery. They work in an environment where drinking and drugs are part of the late-night, adrenaline-fueled kitchen culture.
"I remember the first time I had [to do] a wine tasting to write a menu for a really high-profile restaurant [The Dining Room at The Woodlands Resort & Inn]," Crawford says. "I think I was the youngest five-star chef in the country. I have a thousand-dollar-a-week cocaine habit, and if I didn't get clean and sober I was going to die. And yet part of our monthly routine was to go into the wine cellar and get drunk as we tasted through these incredibly high-end wines for the next wine dinner. What am I supposed to tell people who are used to drinking eight bottles of wine with me after service?"
With Ben's Friends, Crawford wants to continue sharing his experiences to help others navigate recovery challenges—though he's clear that if someone feels they need to get out of the industry to stay sober, they should. Since they began in March 2017, the Sunday meetings have included a core group of ten regulars, though sometimes twenty to thirty people show up.
Richie Reno, a local bartender, became Crawford's cochair and started hosting Monday afternoon meetings to accommodate people working Sunday brunch or late-night Saturday bar shifts. And while Ben's Friends was founded with hospitality professionals in mind, meetings are open to everyone; the Raleigh chapter also counts several musicians among its regulars.
"A lot of us have a difficult time transitioning from the adrenaline rush. For musicians, it's the same thing. To us, service is like being on stage," says Crawford.
Ben's Friends also has a board that helps manage fundraising efforts and allocate money, and it has partnered with local addiction specialists to connect attendees with professional counseling.
In the future, Crawford hopes to raise money not only to help people pay for professional treatment but also to help formerly incarcerated people transition into hospitality jobs. When Crawford first started talking publicly about sobriety, he received an outpouring of support, including letters from inmates who were in jail because of crimes connected to their addictions.
"It's contributing to something that's bigger than us," Crawford says of Ben's Friends. "It's bigger than cooking. It's bigger than hospitality. We're helping humans [who] need help. We're letting people know that it's OK to be vulnerable."