Restaurant in US helps staff overcome drug addiction

Diane and Rob Perez, outside one of their four restaurants, DV8 Kitchen in Lexington, Kentucky, on June 10, 2018.
Diane and Rob Perez, outside one of their four restaurants, DV8 Kitchen in Lexington, Kentucky, on June 10, 2018.PHOTO: NYTIMES
 Breakfast fare at DV8 Kitchen in Lexington, Kentucky, on June 10, 2018.
Breakfast fare at DV8 Kitchen in Lexington, Kentucky, on June 10, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Five years ago, Rob and Diane Perez found a spoon in the trash at a branch of their Saul Good Restaurant & Pub, and realised that their top server was doing heroin in the bathroom.

They had already lost the first manager to join their staff; she died in jail after trying to obtain prescription pills illegally. But they did not put the pieces together until last year, when they got a call that a cook would not be coming to work because he had overdosed on opioids and died.

They realised that they had lost 13 employees to addiction over 10 years, and that half the cases were related to opioid drugs.

Rob, 53, and Diane, 51, decided to take a nationwide crisis into their own hands. Last September, they opened DV8 Kitchen, a restaurant that not only hires people in treatment for addiction to opioids or other substances, but also focuses its entire business model on recovery, using the restaurant setting as a tool for rehabilitation.

An estimated 115 Americans die every day of opioid overdose, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Restaurant culture has long been steeped in alcohol and drugs. Many places offer free shift drinks, and servers earn tips in cash, the common medium for drug transactions.

In restaurants, Rob said: "There are more late nights than early mornings, and it's acceptable to have a hangover. You think all this is fun and normal, because everyone else has that lifestyle."


A therapist leads a mandatory workshop related to addiction recovery at DV8 Kitchen, on June 12, 2018. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Still, the Perezes saw restaurants' unusual potential for helping addicted people recover. "There's customer service, culinary, baking, finances," Rob said. "We can teach you any of these businesses from scratch."

Cooking, in particular, he sees as "100 per cent therapy". In making bread, for example, "there is something magic about kneading the dough side by side with someone else, not making eye contact," he said. "It is very tactile and freeing."

At DV8 Kitchen, employees are held to exacting standards. There is no bar, and a zero-tolerance policy for tardiness. Tips are pooled, then added directly to pay cheques, so no cash is exchanged.

"We are not certified experts on this, nor do we claim to be," Diane said. "We are just providing the piece of the puzzle that is giving people a job right away when they are getting clean."