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One restaurant’s fight against addiction

Photograph by Luke Sharrett

Restaurant owners Rob Perez and his wife, Diane, have seen addiction claim the lives of 15 employees in little more than a decade.

Feeling powerless against the swelling opioid crisis, they decided instead to try to find a solution within the industry they know and love.

In August 2017, the couple opened DV8 Kitchen in Lexington, Ky., with the mission of employing those in treatment for addiction to opioids and other substances. Currently, 23 of the restaurant’s 26 workers are in “active recovery” programs, Rob Perez says. The restaurant’s managers do not have a history of addiction.  

“Either addiction finds our industry, or people in addiction find our industry,” says Perez, who himself has been sober for 29 years. “It has to do with how fun it is, how bonding it is to be in the crunch. Cash money helps, and a bunch of fun-loving people that go out after work.”

The Perezes, who own and operate three Saul Good Restaurant & Pubs in Lexington, work directly with residential treatment facilities near DV8 Kitchen to hire and retain employees. The sober-living houses ensure that all residents are working on their recovery through a 12-step program and they receive drug and alcohol testing weekly. DV8 Kitchen employees must sign documents acknowledging they can be immediately terminated if they violate any of those house rules.

Working hand-in-hand with the treatment centers ensures that “we have validation that people are trying to help themselves,” he says.

The restaurant pools tips and adds the money straight to employees’ checks so no potentially tempting cash is exchanged, according to a New York Times profile of the operation.

DV8 Kitchen serves only breakfast and lunch, with a menu of cafe fare bolstered by an on-site bakery. The concept quickly scrapped its dinner service, realizing employees needed to return to their treatment centers to work on their recovery. Each week, the restaurant hosts mandatory afternoon workshops on topics ranging from personal finance to trauma recovery to origami and yoga.

“We have a less than 70% turnover rate,” Perez says, noting that about half of the employees have no previous foodservice experience. He told the Times that the restaurant has been profitable since last spring.

Perez is currently looking to expand the restaurant’s wholesale baking operation and he hopes to open another location in Lexington.

The tentacles of America’s opioid epidemic extend into all facets of society. Some 72,000 people died of overdoses in 2017, and 42,000 of those deaths were opioid-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The recent surge in opioid use likely originated in the late 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies marketed some opioids as being nonaddictive, and doctors widely prescribed drugs such as oxycodone for long-term use.

Once those prescriptions ran out, some people who became addicted to the prescription painkillers turned to heroin. As demand for heroin outpaces production, synthetic opioids with up to 100 times the potency of morphine have emerged, increasing the frequency and risk of overdoses. The wide availability of opioids and staggering economic inequality in communities throughout the country have proved to be a dangerous combination.

“Opioid abuse has ravaged local communities and families, and all stakeholders must be engaged to confront this national emergency,” Dawn Sweeney, the National Restaurant Association’s president and CEO, said in a statement following the signing of legislation in October by President Trump to reduce the use and supply of opiates.

Employers need to be more receptive to hiring people in addiction recovery, Perez says. Doing so requires them to be flexible with the realities of treatment schedules and needs, as well as the day-to-day struggles of recovering addicts. But the payoff for the effort is great, he says.

“I want to figure out how to help more people because the people I work with who have a background in addiction and recovery have an unbelievable capacity for excellence,” he says.

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