Regaining Control: Substance Abuse in the Hospitality Industry

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A stack of cash. A pile of cocaine. A cellphone. It may seem like the common thread for those items is a drug deal. For one person, they meant sobriety.

On July 22, 2015, award-winning operator Nectaly Mendoza of Herbs & Rye fame woke up in New Orleans. He was there to attend Tales of the Cocktail, a weeklong gathering of bar professionals. When Mendoza opened his eyes after a four-day binge of alcohol and drugs, he saw $9,000 in cash. To the right of the money was a pile of cocaine. And to the right of the drugs was his cellphone.

Those three things, and the realizations they brought with them, inspired Mendoza to pursue sobriety.

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The story of Mendoza’s sobriety and subsequent weight loss are the topic of episode 103 of the Bartender at Large podcast. Host Erick Castro sat down with Mendoza to address a topic that tends to make people in this industry uncomfortable: substance abuse.

Discomfort, of course, is a symptom of something more serious. Choosing to ignore symptoms only makes things worse. And so, while this topic may knock you out of your comfort zone, we’re going to talk about it. To ignore substance abuse issues, to put our heads in the sand, to pretend the topic is off limits, is to assign a measure of shame. That thinking must stop; there’s no shame in acknowledging a problem, talking about it, and seeking help.

Creating a Character

Owning, operating, managing and tending a bar is more than a profession, at least for most involved. This industry is a culture unto itself, and with it comes an expected lifestyle.

“Sometimes I think a lot of us in the industry, we kind of feel like we gotta be the party guy,” says Castro toward the beginning of this episode, “We gotta go out every night. We gotta, you know, rage until 4:00 a.m., right? To kinda be the stereotypical wild bartender.”

Many people pursue positions within this business because of that stereotype. Bartenders are cool. Managing a bar is cool. Owning a bar is really cool. It looks like a nonstop party during which you’re making money and friends.

But Castro knows the lifestyle isn’t all it’s perceived to be. Mendoza knows it too. In his opinion, there are multiple avenues people in this industry can take to promote themselves, promote their bars, and move up. Unfortunately, some of those avenues lead people to create characters instead of being themselves.

It’s important that bartenders and bar owners hear and talk about the flipside of this industry. True to his nature, Mendoza pulls no punches while sharing his story. He lived the life many aspire to have, and he indulged in the trappings, good, bad and deadly.

“I did it for years. Who doesn’t want to win an award? Who doesn’t want to do all these things?” he says, “But…I always say, ‘It’s always fun until it’s not.’”

For Mendoza, it stopped being fun when he opened his eyes in his hotel room in New Orleans on July 22, 2015. His eyes fell onto a stack of cash, moved right to a pile of cocaine, then came to rest on his cellphone. To this day he doesn’t know who did it, but someone had pulled him from a bathtub, likely saving his life. Those four days in New Orleans could have been his last on Earth.

His eyes drifted back to the left, onto the stack of bills. As Mendoza will tell you, he didn’t come from much. He grew up in North Las Vegas, which he refers to as “the ‘hood” during this podcast. Seeing the cash reminded him that he had longed for financial freedom and money. Mendoza had achieved that goal and, as his eyes moved from the cash to the cocaine, he could only think that God had seen fit to bless him with money…and he had squandered it on alcohol and drugs.

Mendoza was struck with another realization when he looked at his cellphone again. He hadn’t called to speak to his girlfriend or children in three days. In fact, he hadn’t even thought to place such a call. Instead, he lived the life some people think you’re supposed to live when you “make it.”

The Golden Age

Back in 2001, things were much different when Mendoza entered the industry. He was working at a nightclub in Las Vegas during what he refers to as the Golden Age of Nightclubs. Walking with less than $1,500 after a shift just didn’t happen. At least, it rarely happened.

Castro says that Mendoza and his peers must have felt rich during that time. Confirming that was the case, Mendoza said he eventually got accustomed to the lifestyle his job afforded him. However, he’s quick to caution that his lifestyle at the time, which probably looked great from the outside, doesn’t come with a “long game.”

Eventually, Mendoza took some of the money he had earned and opened Herbs & Rye. Unfortunately, the bar and restaurant opened its doors during the largest financial crisis in modern American history. Mendoza lost everything.

However, he, his team and his family weathered the financial crisis. Herbs & Rye survived. It thrived. The bar and the team behind it began racking up awards. Herbs & Rye would take home the Spirited Award for Best American High-Volume Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail in 2016. But that award was still a year away when Mendoza decided he needed to address his substance abuse problem.

Back in his hotel room, realizing the thought to call his girlfriend and kids hadn’t even blipped into his mind, he received a call. Peer, friend and sober bartender Giuseppe González was calling. He asked Mendoza if he was alright. The answer, of course, was no. The man behind Herbs & Rye talked with his friend for a few hours, then headed to the airport.

Mendoza drank on the plane. He drank at his destination airport, McCarran International, upon his arrival…for four hours. At this point in the story you can hear Castro’s eyes go wide.

Once home, Mendoza’s girlfriend noted that her boyfriend had obviously cut his trip to New Orleans two days short. He told her that they needed to talk, told her everything: that he hadn’t been the right person to her, to the children, to himself. Mendoza needed to change.

“The only thing I could do is show her for the rest of my life, show my children for the rest of my life, that I’m just going to be a better person,” he says.

Regaining Control

Just over a month from now, Mendoza will have reached three years of sobriety. He has lost 228 pounds; 217 in just one year. Some people who knew him before the weight loss don’t even recognize him at times, mistaking him for his brother or someone else. He sounds happier. There’s a big reveal toward the tail end of this Bartender at Large episode. Sobriety wasn’t the magic bullet to reaching happiness, however.

A year after living sober, Mendoza was standing in Ibiza. Those looking in, who perceive this business as fun, games and money, would have assumed he was happy. After all, how could he be anything but content with his life? There he was, the man who came from very little, on an island considered by many to be the Party Capital of the World, a playground for the successful. But Mendoza wasn’t feeling content; he was experiencing dread. It wasn’t lost on him that he should be happy, yet he felt that something was wrong.

“There’s some people in our audience right now who might be going through something similar…[who] might be losing control of all these factors in their life,” says Castro. He asks Mendoza what steps he took to regain control of his life. It’s that sense of control, after all, that helped him become a happier person.

“I cut negativity out of my life. The biggest thing that I can tell you [is] I simply got rid of the shade of gray in my life, and that’s the best thing I can tell you, man,” answers Mendoza, “I look at everything positive or negative, and I simply exed out negative.”

As an example of cutting out of negativity, Mendoza admits that he blamed the entire industry for his problems. The industry and the people in it were responsible for his unhappiness. It wasn’t his fault he drank too much—it was the fault of the people who were there when it happened. The drugs? Same thing—that was on the enablers, not him.

But when he looked at his situation from a place of positivity, his perception changed. The industry he was vilifying was the one that helped him. All the support he was receiving for his sobriety? That came from those in the industry. When he walks into bars around the country (around the world, really), people welcome him, mention to the staff that he doesn’t drink, and make him a great zero-proof drink. The industry hasn’t forgotten about or demonized him. He hasn’t been stigmatized, shunned or shamed for going sober.

If you’re struggling, know that you’re not alone. Know that your peers may also be struggling. Understand that there are those inside and outside this industry who care about you, who will listen and be there for you. All you have to do is ask for help, which may be the most challenging step you or anyone else will take toward sobriety. It may also be the most rewarding.

Please listen to Bartender at Large, episode 103 below. The candid discussion between Erick Castro and Nectaly Mendoza about the latter’s path to sobriety and weight loss is one we need to have more often. If you need help, ask for it. That may seem easier said than done but there are those who want to help you. If you think someone you know needs help, reach out and ask if they’re alright. A small, caring gesture can lead to big change.