Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front- and back-of-house about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments. For this installment, a restaurant owner shares with us how he found out one of his best cooks was developing a substance abuse problem in his very own restaurant, and how he safely dealt with the person.
What I first started noticing was the mood swings.
In the foodservice industry, it's one thing to get burned out, and another thing to always come in late, always have excuses, and take really, really long bathroom breaks. One member of my staff would go to the restroom up to ten times a day and spend 30 minutes or longer in there. The signs were all in front of my face. When you own a small restaurant, you notice every little thing that goes on within the four walls built on top of your blood, sweat, and tears.
This includes when one of your best, most loyal cooks starts to develop a substance-abuse problem and tries to be sneaky about it.
At first, I thought this person just really enjoyed taking really long shits with music playing in the background. But then I noticed that the bathroom breaks were getting longer, and that they were happening ever more frequently. At first, I gave the person the benefit of the doubt and said, "Hey, maybe you should go see a doctor about your stomach because that's not normal." Then, one day I started noticing a very strange, chemical-like smell that couldn't be from a human body in the restroom. That was when I started to suspect that something was up.
It was all over when I discovered one of those items with some non-marijuana debris still in it deeply stashed in the restroom.
The next giveaway was when I started to notice certain common restaurant objects mysteriously disappearing whenever I did inventory—certain vessels that could be easily modified to smoke amphetamines. Not to mention that the person would leave the restaurant for hours at a time during the day without telling anybody that they were stepping out. It was all over when I discovered one of those items with some non-marijuana debris still in it deeply stashed in the restroom. From that point on, I knew that no matter how valuable this person was to my team, I had to push them out.
From past experience of growing up in the streets and dealing with junkies, I knew that I would have to be strategic, because when someone is under the influence of that kind of drug, you have to be really careful with how you deal with them. If they know that you know that they are using, there is no telling what they are capable of. I've had past druggies steal from me and I've had others snap on my other employees for any little reason. Hell, for all I know, they would even be capable of killing me.
The first thing I did was remove the stashed smoking vessel, so that they knew that someone was onto them. Then, the symptoms started to play out. The person started to get paranoid and, sooner rather than later, started snapping bad. Nonetheless, I remained calm. I called a meeting to inform my staff that I found drug paraphernalia in the restaurant and to reiterate that we don't don't tolerate that at the restaurant, without pointing any fingers at anyone. I then offered help to anyone who needed it and reinforced the fact that addiction is a disease and that there are very effective treatments to deal with it. This way, instead of getting more paranoid, the person would hopefully look inward and realize that there was help available if they wanted it.
After that, this person voluntarily resigned and I never heard from them again.
This person was an essential part of the restaurant. This person had the keys to everything and it really hurt to lose them. But at the end of the day, it was best to let this person go because a restaurant is no place for drugs like crystal meth—no matter how stressful the lifestyle may be. And if you really think about it, someone who is truly loyal wouldn't jeopardize the restaurant by smoking amphetamines in the restroom.
Never pretend that nothing is happening when the signs are all there. Rest assured that things will only get progressively worse for everyone involved.
The easiest thing would have been for me to just turn a blind eye, like many other restaurant owners do. This person still would come through with their daily duties (for the most part) and would stay in longer and come in earlier than anyone else. But I believe in energy. Did I want someone who is cracked out cooking the dishes that I worked so hard to master and that are supposed to represent the restaurant?
All this being said, there is no excuse for substance abuse, ever, even if it is not directly impacting your business. We all know that the restaurant industry is tough and that people lose their minds because of the pressure that can come with having to work two back-of-house jobs to get by. It is no secret; Anthony Bourdain and many other notable chefs have addressed it many times. It is an epidemic. And while it may seem understandable to resort to narcotics, alcohol, or any other substances to dull the pain, stay sane, or stay awake, that never works in the long run.
For any other restaurant owners who are reading this and suspect that something is up with your crew, be on your toes. Don't single anyone out right away, and never pretend that nothing is happening when the signs are all there. Rest assured that things will only get progressively worse for everyone involved. Remember, anyone is replaceable. The show will always go on, even if you lose one of your best staff members.
In my case, I found a younger, hungrier cook right away, and we are doing better than ever.
As told to Javier Cabral