Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.
I swear I smelled booze in his breath on the second day he worked for us.
It was during the middle of the day. I didn't think it was a big deal. Maybe he was just really hungover from the night before and was sweating it out through his pores? I naively thought. After all, having a cold beer after a long day of working in a kitchen is one of the best things on the planet.
I texted my business partner who owns the restaurant with me and he told me that he smelled booze on the guy, too. The following day, I checked and noticed that exactly five beers were missing from the drink refrigerator. Then a couple of my other employees confirmed my suspicion when they told me they saw him put those beers in his pocket and proceeded to casually walk into the restroom with them, only to come out a few minutes later—red-faced with empty pockets.
There is a sad, very-real problem that affects a large number of the people who work all day to cook and serve you your food: alcoholism.
After realizing that my general manager had issues with alcohol, I had to let him go, as painful as it was since he was one of those employees who did the work of at least ten different people. It gets even more depressing after this since he was the second employee that we had to fire for their issues with drinking on the job in a two-week period. Our restaurant is quite small, so to lose two really strong employees in such a short amount of time stung me hard.
Also, guess who has to pick up the slack and work 14 hours in a single day to cover for them? Me. The media and press nowadays make cooking for a living look glamorous, but for every pretty Instagram photo of mouthwatering food that you like, there is a photo of somebody scrubbing burnt cheese off a grill or mopping grimy floors that nobody is taking. We have implemented a zero-tolerance rule with drinking on the job out of respect for the rest of our hardworking employees who show up to work on time, work damn hard, and look out for the restaurant.
This doesn't, by any means, mean that our workplace is a sterile, fun-free environment. It is quite the opposite actually, since both my business partner and myself are in our early 30s, and we also enjoy drinking. It just sets a precedent that says, "We may be a fun environment to work in but we aren't fucking around when it comes to these things." When it all boils down, it's all about how the owner of a restaurant handles this kind of situation.
I decided to implement this policy as a young entrepreneur who just would like to get off to a good start. I can't be babysitting people or wondering if my employees are going to show up to work drunk or not; I would rather step in myself and take care of it than deal with them. As a new business with paper-thin profit margins, I just can't have any liability.
I know how everyone drinks, and the natural sense of camaraderie that arises from this environment. Which is how I think that this 'drinking-on-the-job' norm spread through restaurants in the first place.
I learned about the seriousness of alcoholism in the food industry firsthand. Since my father owns a restaurant that is now an LA landmark, I worked alongside him for the last 15 years of my life witnessing some pretty fucked up things because of alcohol abuse in the workplace. Things like other businesses that he partnered with closing down because the owners adopted a "fuck it, as long as my restaurant is still running" kind of philosophy with these alcoholics, since a lot of the times they are "functioning alcoholics" who can still perform their duties.
But trust me that this business mindset—built off an innumerable amount of unaccounted drinks and fickle personalities dependent on booze—will eventually crumble. No matter how smooth it may appear to be running from the outside.
I've also worked in other restaurants with serious bars and bartenders so I do understand bar culture. I know how everyone drinks, and the natural sense of camaraderie that arises from this environment. Which is how I think that this "drinking-on-the-job" norm spread through restaurants in the first place. Look, we all like drinking but in my opinion, the kitchen is not that place for that.
This drinking issue has really posed a problem to my small restaurant and how we hire new people. Our interview process isn't based off merit and past restaurant experience anymore, it is based off vibing candidates out and gauging their responses to questions like, "What do you like to do in your free time?" If their response is anything along the lines of "pound beers with my bros," or "I like going to house parties and chilling out," it can be a red flag. This, on top of the difficulties of sourcing line cooks, which is almost impossible to find as it is. Or the fact that a lot of jobless, entitled Millennials can't cook for shit to begin with, and don't care a bit to learn how to do so for money.
I'm hoping, as my restaurant becomes more established and we build a name for ourselves, that we will attract better people to work for us. Until that day comes, I better start getting used to these longer days. But if this is what it takes to stop this epidemic from spreading—so be it.
As told to Javier Cabral