Restaurateur Steve Palmer is on a mission to offer sobriety to the restaurant industry.
Aaron Kotowski/The Forbes Collection
In the industry that initially enabled his addiction, Steve Palmer is living sober. The hospitality industry has higher rates of substance abuse than any other, and as a young man, Palmer was swept up in the drugs-and-alcohol culture of the restaurant business.
“The industry enabled my addiction so readily and completely that I nearly drank myself to death on the job,” says Palmer.
Palmer started working in the restaurant industry at thirteen years old, washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant in Atlanta. As a teenager and into adulthood, he moved to different restaurants and into different positions, eventually serving in nearly every role the industry has to offer. Palmer began to fall in love with taking care of people through hospitality, and found that he’s really a servant leader at heart. As Palmer explains in his new book Say Grace: How The Restaurant Business Saved My Life, there are many caring, wonderful people working in restaurants, and he believes they’re being failed by the industry.
“The hospitality industry operates under a perplexing contradiction,” writes Palmer. “We are an industry of caring individuals whose job it is to care for others — but we are failing to care for our own.”
Palmer eventually found success in the food industry, but it wasn’t an easy journey. After twenty years of abusing drugs and alcohol, it was his friends in the industry who pulled him back from the brink. Palmer’s boss sat him down and said that unless he got help and went to rehab, he’d have to fire him. It was a wake-up call that changed the course of his life: Palmer is now 19 years sober.
It isn’t easy for a person in recovery to work in an industry that normalizes substance abuse, but Palmer wasn’t ready to walk away from the work he loved. So he got back to it, this time with a renewed curiosity about the role of hospitality in peoples’ lives.
“Chris Goss, a mentor of mine, was training me for the opening of his new restaurant in Charleston,” says Palmer. “He told me that hospitality grants us the wonderful privilege — and responsibility — to create an experience for people. It’s about taking care of people. It was a lightbulb moment for me.”
Palmer’s unassuming beginnings granted him a comprehensive understanding of the restaurant industry, and he started to build a name for himself in the Charleston area. In 2009, Palmer was between jobs and doing consulting work when he was approached by two Wall Street investors. They’d recently opened a restaurant in Charleston, and it wasn’t doing well.
“I agreed to consult for 30 days, and after that they wanted me to stay,” says Palmer. “Many entrepreneurs talk about the moment that they take a leap of faith — I had a vision for a restaurant group, and I painted a picture for them of what it would look like. Oddly enough, they bought it.”
In 2019, The Indigo Road was included on the list of Forbes Small Giants: Best Small Companies in … [+]
Aaron Kotowski/The Forbes Collection
Today, Palmer is Managing Partner of The Indigo Road, a group of 24 restaurants with more than 1,200 employees in the Southeast and Washington D.C. The Indigo Road has grown quickly, and its first ten years were hugely successful. But in a high-failure industry, Palmer found himself looking for a way to ensure a sustainable future.
“Our growth is the story of our people,” says Palmer. “We strongly believe that promoting from within is always the better choice. As the company has grown, so have our people. Our current COO was a waiter here seven years ago. As we look to the future, it will be the generation of younger people, and their desire to grow, that will propel us forward.”
Although the company was successful, Palmer still felt a strong desire to give back to the industry that saved his life. The lessons he learned in recovery shaped his leadership: his approach was rooted in vulnerability, accountability, and trust. He wanted to start talking about addiction and recovery with his employees, but he was cautious about projecting his sobriety onto the culture.
Unfortunately, clarity came in the form of tragedy. In 2016, Palmer’s friend and chef Ben Murray died by suicide in a hotel room during a work trip for a restaurant Palmer was opening. Although they weren’t aware of it, Murray was struggling with depression and addiction. Palmer was devastated by the loss — and shocked that it could happen under their watch.
“There were so many sad ironies to the situation,” says Palmer. “We had three sober chefs working with Ben in the kitchen that night, and I was immediately struck by the fact that he didn’t feel comfortable enough to pull them aside and ask for help. It became my top priority to start changing the conversation in our industry.”
That tragic event inspired Ben’s Friends, a food and beverage industry support group offering a bridge to sobriety. Palmer founded the group with Mickey Bakst, a fellow restaurateur in recovery. Ben’s Friends is a weekly support group run by sober people in the industry who want to help others. In just three years, the program has expanded to 10 cities. It’s a fast-growing movement, and Palmer and Bakst hope to eventually have a Ben’s Friends in all fifty states.
Steve Palmer speaking at the 2019 Small Giants Community Summit in Detroit, Michigan.
Patty Rooney / Rooney & Company
“Ben’s Friends is my life’s most important work,” says Palmer. “The restaurant industry has given me a life that I could’ve never imagined, and I have a deep desire to leave the industry better than I found it.”
In service to that mission, Palmer is using The Indigo Road’s financial success to empower employees. In an effort to solve home ownership for its team members, the company offers a home loan buying program that gives employees a three-year, interest-free loan for down payments. They also offer free mental health therapy, as well as tuition matching for culinary school.
Not only do these benefits help boost retention in a high-turnover industry, Palmer simply believes it’s the right thing to do.
“Leading people is an act of service. I believe this firmly,” says Palmer. “It’s not about the satisfaction of self, it’s about how you can be better for the people you’re leading. I need them a lot more than they need me, and I want to build a culture that shows them how much we care.”
To hear more of Steve’s story and interviews with other purpose-driven leaders, subscribe to my Growing with Purpose podcast.