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Tuesday, January 8, 2019

How Tom Halaska Got Sober, Got a New Job and Started a Movement

Posted By on Tue, Jan 8, 2019 at 6:01 AM

click to enlarge Tom Halaska is leading an alcohol-free lifestyle movement. - MATTHEW DEUTSCHMANN
  • Tom Halaska is leading an alcohol-free lifestyle movement.

Several things about going public with his sobriety surprised Tom Halaska — how supportive his friends were, how respectful people in the industry were to his choice. But perhaps the biggest shock was just how little ribbing he took.

"I got teased a lot less than I thought I would have," Halaska says. "That hurt, because it meant I really did have a problem. People would come up to me and say, 'Wow, you look great,' and it made me think, 'Shit, how bad did I look?'"

Since announcing his sobriety on his Facebook page a little over a year ago, Halaska has been the St. Louis restaurant community's public face of recovery. He's been open, honest and raw, but perhaps what is most impressive is the levity and humor he brings to a situation that might seem at odds with such lightness.

"I didn't go the traditional [Alcoholics Anonymous] route after I walked into my first meeting and realized I was wearing a 4 Hands [Brewing Co.] hoodie," Halaska laughs. "I took it off, looked down and saw I had on an Earthbound [Beer] shirt underneath. I realized at that moment it wasn't for me. These are the clothes I wear because it's the industry I work in. I just have a different lifestyle. I can't be telling people they shouldn't drink while I am pouring them a whiskey and Coke."

Though Halaska made a major life change when he quit drinking, there was never a moment he considered changing careers. For more than two decades, he's made his name in the city's restaurant scene, as both a worker and a cheerleader.

He started in the business at fifteen, and by seventeen, he was head waiter at Dominic's on the Hill and in Clayton, directing veteran servers while donning a tuxedo. From there, he was hooked.

"At first it was the money — I was making $700 to $1,000 a week and had the best car stereo and all the Abercrombie & Fitch clothes I wanted," he recalls. "But really, it was about seeing people happy and creating experiences while being in the trenches. The world could be crashing and burning in the back, but we were able to pull it out. There's no way to plan in this industry, and that's what I love."

Halaska has done just about every job restaurants have to offer, from washing dishes to bartending to managing. He's worked for mom-and-pop places and big corporations and done marketing for international liquor brands. However, his current job as brand manager for WellBeing Brewing, the St. Louis-based non-alcoholic craft beer brand, might be his most personal gig yet.

"There is a global change going on, and we aren't the ones collecting the data, places like Total Wine and InBev are," Halaska says of the move toward non-alcoholic drinks and more responsible imbibing. "InBev estimates that n/a will make up 20% of their sales in the coming years. When Total Wine says they want to purchase X amount of cases for their stores because they see what's happening, you know it's something."

WellBeing has given Halaska a job that dovetails with his journey toward a more healthful, alcohol-free lifestyle — and intent of having a good time while doing so.

"Liquor companies have done a good job convincing you that if you aren't drinking, you aren't having a good time," says Halaska. "We associate drinking with celebration — that if you aren't drinking, you aren't celebrating. I had a great time this New Year's Eve, and I woke up the next day remembering everyone I hugged and kissed the night before."

Halaska is determined to shine a light on the fact that sobriety does not deprive people of good time; in fact, it can make having a good time more fulfilling. To that end, he has created a Facebook group called "Dry January Crew" that is centered around the international phenomenon that invites people to take a break from drinking.

"It's an annual, month-long campaign that encourages people to give up the hooch for a month," Halaska explains. "It's actually pretty awesome. The holidays can be tough with lots of family, lots of binge eating and drinking. Starting the new year off with a clear head can really give you a head start."

Halaska emphasizes that the "Dry January" Facebook group is not only for people who are considering giving up drinking altogether or who have drinking problems. Rather, it's a forum for sharing non-booze-focused events, tips and tricks for changing habits, as well as a space to cheer on members throughout the month. Halaska envisions keeping the group going even after the month's end, promoting alcohol-free events and offering support throughout the year.

"When I first started all of this, I thought there was a stigma attached to talking about it," Halaska says. "But I have gotten more praise for being open and honest than I could have known. We're normalizing these issues and helping people lead happier, healthier lifestyles."

Halaska took a break from championing WellBeing's beers to share his thoughts on the St. Louis food-and-beverage scene, the importance of taking care of yourself and how St. Louis is ahead of the curve on a major global trend.

What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That even though my job for years has been to be the life of the party, I often have social anxiety. If there isn’t a bar separating me and a crowd, I sometimes get nervous. If you see me out and I’m a little reclusive, it’s most likely because I’m a socially awkward goof, just like everyone else.

What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
I incorporate some sort of self-care into my routine every day. Going to the gym, hiking and yoga are at the top of the list, but something as simple as treating myself to a slice of pizza at Pie Guy Pizza always puts a smile on my face. Taking the time to take care of myself has made me a happier and more productive person.

What’s it like being a sober bartender?
It was terrifying at first, but now I’m really into it. If you would have told me two years ago that I would be a brand manager for a craft non-alcoholic brewing company and bartending sober, I would have laughed in your face. The reality is that my cocktails are more refined, my service has improved and working for WellBeing Brewing is a dream job.

What message do you have for people in the industry dealing with substance abuse?
Most importantly, that they are not alone. A lot of us grew up in an industry where you are sometimes judged on how well you can work hungover. Years of living in the “work hard play hard” mentality is destructive. We have to figure out a way to break that cycle as a community. It’s OK to be vulnerable. It’s OK to admit you need help. It’s OK to be sober.

What is the most positive trend in food, beer, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
This one is easy: I have seen a lot of beverage programs in the city become more diverse. There is a global trend of people being more conscious of how they are consuming alcohol, and I think St. Louis is ahead of the curve on this one. I’ve seen a ton of businesses offering more non-alcoholic and low-proof options. I think about bars like Pieces, Parlour, and Apotheosis Comics & Lounge, who are offering more to do than just drink. Hell, Pop’s Blue Moon even has a booze-free night. It’s really cool to see St. Louis leading a trend instead of following one.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
The ability to remember the name, and one important fact, of everyone I’ve ever met.

Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis food and beverage scene?
Laura Coppinger at the Monocle. From the Fresh Produce Beat Battles and late-night dance parties to burlesque, magic and variety shows, the Monocle is killing it. Their N/A drink program is on point too!

Who is your St. Louis food or drink crush?
WellBeing Brewing. We just released our third beer in December, Intrepid Traveler Coffee Cream Stout. From what we can tell it is the first beer ever made without alcohol and with caffeine. It’s been pretty exciting. WellBeing Brewing has really taken off. We are currently selling beer in 26 states!

If someone asked you to describe the current state of St. Louis’ food and beverage climate, what would you say?
This is the most talent I have ever seen in our community in my entire life in St. Louis. We all work together and build each other up. We are a family.

Name an ingredient never allowed behind your bar.
Pretentiousness. I don’t care if you like ice in your chardonnay, salt in your beer or no booze at all. You are welcome to sit across the bar from me as long as you are respectful to those around you. I want people to drink and be merry, not worrying that they aren’t doing it right.

What would be your last meal on earth?
One that I cooked and served to my friends and family. It would most likely revolve around the cooking of a whole animal that slowly rotates around a fire.

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