Tony Kost spends a large percentage of his time surrounded by alcohol.
He’s the lead bartender at Immigrant Son Brewery in Lakewood, but his job title doesn’t even begin to tell his story.
“I love the restaurant industry. It’s provided for me my entire life,” Kost says. “I’m really good at it. I’m respected in it, and I continue to grow in it.”
For him to get to where he is today hasn’t always been easy, though.
“One day I woke up in the attic of a restaurant I was the general manager of during brunch service when my staff was downstairs working. I was so trashed during the morning when I passed out. The next day, I woke up and ended up walking out because I was just so embarrassed and drunk and ashamed and all kinds of things. I went home and kept drinking.”
That was Sept. 4, 2016.
When Kost woke up, he checked himself into the emergency room at Lakewood Hospital.
He’s been sober since.
While every story is unique, Kost isn’t alone in dealing with addiction. There are countless people who work in the service industry who face their demons at work daily.
While on his journey to sobriety, Kost didn’t use Alcoholics Anonymous. It was something that he decided wasn’t for him. He didn’t feel as if AA was the best path forward for his sobriety.
That meant Kost was getting sober, more or less, on his own.
“AA, as wonderful as it is and as life-changing as it can be, is a tool. It’s a tool I chose not to use,” Kost says. “It was just not something for me.”
Kost describes his first days of sobriety as “white knuckling” through it. He initially feared not being able to go back to his service industry career.
“I was terrified that the second I left the house I was going to drink. I was terrified. And absolutely lost as to what I was going to do professionally, because at the time I was like, ‘I can’t go back to the restaurant. I can’t go back to food and beverage. I can’t go back to running restaurants. I can’t go back to bartending. I’ll drink the second I walk into a restaurant.’”
Now, Kost uses his experience to help others just like him find their way, through a support group called Ben’s Friends.
Ben’s Friends started in 2016, the same year Kost got sober. The organization strives to help people working in the restaurant industry who are struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction to put their lives on the right track — while not having to completely alter their careers. It was founded by two men, Mickey Baskt and Steve Palmer, who were, “sick and tired of seeing people in our industry destroy their lives, ruin their careers and, unfortunately, in too many cases end their lives.”
Baskt and Palmer were friends and colleagues with a man named Ben Murray. There was a restaurant opening that Murray was helping Palmer with but didn’t show up as scheduled.
Murray was found in a hotel room in South Carolina having died of suicide. That’s when and where Ben’s Friends was founded. Its goal has been to prevent more stories like Murray’s and create more like Kost’s.
“It would have been exponentially different,” Kost says, if Ben’s Friends had existed when he decided to get sober. “It probably would have been a lot less of a terror of ‘what is going to happen to me when I go back to work?’ or dreading that moment when I just can’t control the urge to drink.”
People in many lines of work blur the lines between who they are and what they do. The service industry is no different.
“A lot of people in AA feel that if you’re going to get sober, you need to get out of the restaurant industry. And restaurant people who love what they do, don’t want to hear that,” Baskt says. “When I got sober 41 years ago (in December), they told me I had to quit my business. So, here I am, giving up my two best friends, drugs and alcohol, and being asked to give up the one other thing I loved, and that just doesn’t work for us.”
Recognizing how much Ben's Friends could have helped him has made Kost want to help others. He signed on to lead a Cleveland chapter of Ben’s Friends in 2023, starting weekly meetings at Porco Lounge and Tiki Room in Ohio City in November.
As people file into the room before a meeting begins, hellos are exchanged and small talk is made. Things officially kick off with a reading of the organization's preamble. From there, newcomers are given the opportunity to formally introduce themselves to the group and ground rules of keeping the space sacred and safe are shared. Each meeting has a different topic, led by the group's moderator. Those in attendance are always given the opportunity to share their thoughts or bring up anything that is affecting their sobriety.
“It is, and always will be, a very humbling feeling,” Kost says. “As somebody who seven years and three months ago and a couple of days couldn’t piece together how to support himself and struggle to do a lot of things at all healthy or with any sort of purpose, to now be at a point and in a position where I’m having people come to me for support when they’re struggling is a humbling, amazing feeling.”
Helping others is the route that Kost has chosen to take. When he’s not behind the bar, he can be found in front of a group that needs his guidance.
“I think just knowing that there’s a community within the food and beverage industry that’s interested and focused on sobriety and abstaining because it isn’t something that a lot of people in our industry do,” Kost says.
It’s easy to hear the passion in Kost's voice. For life, for work and for helping others. His journey causes wonderment as to how many people there have been just like him who didn’t make it because they didn’t have the resources to overcome addictions.
“It gives me purpose, it gives me drive.”
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