Giving a Chance to the Newly Sober

Recovering addicts can be among the best workers. Ask L.A. cafe owner Jon Esformes.

Cyndia Zwahlen
The Los Angeles Times
Small Business Report

June 21, 2006

Most employers would balk at hiring newly sober workers or those still battling drug or alcohol abuse.

Not Jon Esformes, owner of Westwood Country Market and Cafe in Los Angeles.

Esformes opened the business 14 months ago, serving brioche French toast, house-made granola, grilled panini and chopped salads to neighborhood families and businesspeople. He welcomes job candidates at various stages of recovery - as long as they are qualified, willing and able to perform the work.

He finds that the individuals who make the cut are often more enthusiastic than the typical worker. And thanks to the tenets of most 12-step recovery programs, they can operate with a heightened sense of integrity and be more receptive to instruction and criticism.

"Someone who is in recovery has a real gratitude for the opportunity they have to be part of the world and to be part of something, because for so long they may not have been part of anything," Esformes said. "It was that kind of excitement that I wanted in this restaurant as part of our team."

His team consists of 15 full-time and part-time employees. They cook, greet and serve guests and clean at the glass-fronted cafe and gourmet market, where bins of neatly stacked vegetables and shelves of specialty foods and wine surround the tables and wicker chairs.

It is illegal for an employer to ask a job candidate about health problems, including substance abuse, but Esformes, himself a recovering alcoholic, often learns of his workers' struggles. He has employed 10 newly sober workers at the cafe since it opened.

Esformes hopes to re-create the welcoming atmosphere of the small-town cafes and markets he frequented during his years on the road in his previous job. He handled chain-restaurant sales and marketing for his family's agriculture business, Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd. of Palmetto, Fla.

"I love the warmth of neighborhoods and what a neighborhood cafe represents to the people living in the area," he said.

At the Westwood cafe, prices are modest - most menu items are $10 or less, and families and children are welcomed.

The business broke even for the first time last month as sales rose to the $55,000 to $60,000 range, Esformes said. Sales have increased about 10% each month this year, he said. An on-site catering operation is part of a separate joint venture.

Esformes is determined to give others a chance to be a part of his own budding success story. He knows, and experts agree, that a stable work environment is important for those on the road to recovery.

"While treatment is a marvelous thing, if the treated individual doesn't acquire gainful employment, the likely success of the treatment would decline," said Scott Robertson, administrator for Glendale Adventist Alcohol and Drug Services, a leading private treatment program.

The financial toll of alcohol dependence in the U.S. hit $184.6 billion in 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Lost productivity accounted for the biggest share.

Esformes and his efforts are part of the growth of entrepreneurial activity and professional networking among people who have been through recovery programs.

It's a phenomenon that a year ago caught the eye of Alex Shohet, managing director of 12 Angels, a Southern California network of investors and others. Its slogan: Making an Investment in Redemption. The chairman of the board is Luis Villalobos, founder of the high-profile Tech Coast Angels network.

"People need a way back," said Shohet, who has founded and sold three high-tech companies and is a recovering substance abuser.

He was struck by the number of entrepreneurs in his 12-step meetings and the high-level professionals in his treatment program.

"I thought, 'What an amazing talent pool of unharnessed effort,' " he said. Individuals in that pool, who may have advanced degrees and years of work experience and expertise, often must take jobs that are well below and pay far less than their previous positions, Shohet said.

His group runs two pilot entrepreneur training programs and provides free consulting to businesses that hire recovering addicts.

Even the employer who is not actively hiring such individuals is likely to deal with the issue at some point, experts say.

About 8% of the average workforce has an alcohol abuse problem, says Eric Goplerud, a research professor at George Washington University.

Shohet is the first to acknowledge that hiring newly sober workers can be risky.

Relapse in the first year of recovery is high, he said. And employees will often need time to attend support meetings and other related appointments. Employers may decide to conduct more thorough background checks and keep a closer eye on attendance and other indications of a worker's performance.

Turnover rates can be higher than normal, experts said.

But the costs are worth it, Westwood Country Market's Esformes said.

"When I balance the exuberance that someone [newly sober] brings to the job and to the client's table, you know it would have to be a much higher cost to me to offset that," he said. "I get paid back tenfold."

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times