Pete's Paleo - Changing Lives: How It Began

Continuing with our series, Pete’s Paleo – Changing Lives, I had the honor and privilege of meeting up (over Zoom) with the man who started it all – Pete Servold. I wanted to explore his thoughts and philosophies on staffing his company, providing a safe space for recovery and changing lives

Michal Ofer: Hi Pete. I’m thrilled to meet with you today. After speaking with Tamika and Samara I know what a difference working with you and Pete’s Paleo has had on their lives…

Pete Servold: Hi Michal, thanks. I’m very proud of, like, what we do with that and how we're able to help people and there's a there's a lot of reasons behind it so yeah….

MO: You shared your story in a very raw and real way through your social media and website recently but I thought perhaps we should start with just like the backstory. So the short version of your story you started Pete's Paleo. And then what inspired you to reach out in some way to people in addiction recovery, to start having them work with you or did they just come to you?

PS: My whole life I have …. never liked to talk about politics and stuff but I still believe in being helpful. And I believe that people that get caught up in the system are put in this impossible position. The guy who inspired me to start this, literally said “if I don't get a job I'm gonna go to prison. Nobody will give me a job because I'm going to go to prison.”

And, you know, it's like we're not doing kids heart transplants - we're peeling root vegetables and putting the food in the bags, and if we can't trust those people in those situations to do that, then what chance, do they have of getting a job.

……and if I don't take a chance on them, then who will.

And you realize that you have this opportunity to be the change that you want to see in the world, you realize that by giving these people a chance you'll be able to produce some change and even if it's just for that one person.

My personal struggle has always been it's never enough; I never feel like I'm doing enough. I always feel that's what I should do anyways, that that's what I should have been doing this whole time. But now I've definitely gotten a healthier perspective that most people don't do that, that, well, it is pretty special what we do giving people these opportunities.

MO: And the impact of these opportunities is truly life changing…

PS: Yeah, the guy that runs the West Coast now just before this interview, we gave him a six-year anniversary (sobriety) cake. We were joking when he came in, thinking that guy's not gonna last, the look in his eyes and he was, just in a rough spot. He said “if I don't get a job I'm gonna go to jail.” So we gave him a job and now he's got two beautiful daughters, he has a Harley and his own house and makes a real living and like he has a 401k, and you know, that if there was nobody else other than him that we helped, that would be enough.

MO: The is literally changing the trajectory of somebody's life - they're going one way and because you gave him a chance, and a whole bunch of other things it’s totally gone the other way.

PS: It was kind of, it was cool that that happened. Right before it really shaped me back into the perspective that we really changed that guy's life and it was interesting.

MO: So how did this progress into a hiring policy?

PS: Here's the deal with our industry: people come and go a lot. It's hard, hard work. It's not for everybody. I realized that I was losing the same amount of people, hiring from recovery centers and halfway houses as I was if I was just looking for "normal" people. The difference was that if they got over that three months or that six months of their recovery, they stayed with us forever until they went on to college or they went back to school or they got a job in the profession that they wanted. If you want to stay and work with me forever, then great. Then I'm happy to have you. But, but for most of those people, I expect our job to be the springboard into getting them back into the life that if they hadn't found drugs and alcohol and gotten derailed, they would have. That they would have gone to college, or they would have studied printing or graphic design or become a nurse or whatever so we've had a lot of people that come and work for us for three months, six months, nine months a year. And then they go back to school or they start, or they go to school or they work for us and that's really what I want. I don't expect people to come in and chop vegetables for the rest of their life - that's not what I want. I just want to be the guy that gives them a chance to get out from underneath the hole that they dug, because it's a disease and it's just one of those things…

For example if someone got cancer and they got fired because they got cancer, that would be unethical for the company to do. If society said things like you got cancer, what's wrong with you….. that's how we, look at drugs and alcohol. It's like why would you do that why can't you get it together; don't you know you have kids or like you have a wife at home. That's why it's a disease because despite all of those things, we still go out and do that stuff. When you finally accept that you need help, and you're asking for help and you've checked yourself into a rehab or you check yourself into a halfway house or sober living and next step of getting your life back together is a job and no one will give you a job. One thing follows the next and we are able to be a gateway for the people that are putting in the work and putting in honest work.

My daughter says it fills my bucket. And it does - to be a space where they can come and then you know when they're here, because of the environment that we built they're surrounded by recovery at work. So, a lot of times we know if someone's having a bad day it's like, Well, did you meditate Did you pray, did you go to a meeting Did you call your sponsor. We use the program as our checks and balances. I had a girl that's worked for us for a long time she was in a rough spot and I mentioned that it sounds like Step 10 work needs to be done. We use the language of the program to help people.


Also, I was just gonna say that's the thing about addicts - we’re intense about everything, right. So, if you can point us in the right direction and get us focused on something, no one cares more, nobody has more loyalty, nobody has more passion than an addict or an alcoholic. That's just how we're built. And so when you can finally give them a positive outlet, when they get over that hump of the first few months and get into the work at work and recovery it's pretty special.

MO: You've established this community, so, although I know that in the cooking industry or the food industry there's a lot of addiction, and there's a lot of addiction recovery. I think what you've created if I'm hearing you right is what's different to just a regular restaurant is you've created this active community, where you're supporting each other.  How do you deal with the folks who for some reason can't stick to the program, if they do start using again, or those types of things?

PS: So, that happens, relapse is a part of a lot of people's story, it's a part of my story. The first thing that we do is we are there for them - we try to get them back to meeting, sometimes they might need detox. There's a guy outside right now cutting chickens that has come in and out four times but I'm pretty sure it was Plato that said “It's impossible to hate somebody if you get to know him.” And that's the thing. We get to know these people and know their story like his wife disappeared, he was alone with the kids and he was doing good but it happened. But if they come back and they want help, then we will give it to them. That gentleman as an example - one of the other guys in the kitchen is his sponsor. He went and got help, he's getting medication now, and we're giving them a job. I have another guy whose brother took his own life and he just never really processed that. Unfortunately, started using again and then started selling to facilitate the habit and he was arrested for that. And he got out, but he didn't want to go get help. And but he wanted to come back and I talked to his wife and I talked to him and I said you go to rehab when you get out of rehab and can come back to work, I'll give you a job. You don't go get help, you can't come back. If you're willing to work the program I'll work with you.

MO: So you're active in the entire recovery process because relapse as much as we'd like to think, that you do all these steps then it’s over. People who don't know anybody, or who haven't gone through addiction themselves don't understand that it's not a choice and the road back to recovery is never smooth. There will always be these ups and downs and ins and outs so it's not just the next, it's not just giving you a job it's when that down comes because it will inevitably, you're still there, which is great.

PS: Who are we to say what they can and can't do. I shudder to think where I would be if I didn’t have the help that I had. And that guy that just took six years that I gave a chance to six years ago when no one would give him a job, he saved my life, a year ago. He was the one who saved me. You'll get it back, sometimes you'll get it back quickly. I have the opportunity to create this environment that's really supportive. Now in Atlanta, it's not recovery, it's the immigrant community. Atlanta is super popular for immigrant communities so people from West Africa or East Africa. They can't get a job because no one will give them a job if they can't wash dishes. We do simple stuff it's hard, but it's simple. So Atlanta is less about recovery and more about helping them but it's the same process if they need a job to keep their visa, they need a job to apply for a green card and no one will give them a job. We give them a chance.

It's a tiny little thing that we do.

MO: It’s a huge thing, probably even bigger than supporting people on their wellness journey by providing solid nutrition.

PS: We understand how the whole food thing makes a difference by providing an option that isn't just skip the dishes from McDonald's and those kinds of things - fantastic good stuff. Especially now. Yeah, it's great.

MO: But your company ethics and policies speak volumes… Has this always been your purpose?

PS: I'm proud of what we do as a company but what we are doing that allows us to do the hiring stuff. Yeah, is the true purpose for people that wouldn't otherwise get a chance. Just, like, I don't know why or how or what happened to me along the way. Growing up I really realized, I remember I was always interested in the world and always interested in history and stuff and I remember watching something about an indigenous population on Discovery channel and like how hard their life was and I wondered why don't they just come here. Don't they know how easy it is? As I got older I realized they can't because of this, this, this and this.  There's this guy, from like Mozambique that's our dishwasher Titi in Atlanta and he works his butt off and he whistles like literally whistles while he works. Gratitude just drips from him. It's the same thing with the guys in the San Diego kitchen - last week, someone was saying “My credit’s fixed, I have a cell phone, I have a car”

MO: Tamika and Samara told similar stories to me…

PS: Yeah, another girl just got a year and she goes, “I never thought I would get a year I never thought I'd have a bank account I never thought I would have anything”  I gave a little speech for six years, and these people sell their life short because of what their parents do to them or because of the neighborhood they grew up in - they just assume that their lives have a set limit on it and we try to get them to see beyond that.

We're just doing what we can.

MO: Do you work directly with specific recovery programs and recovery centers or job search facilities?

PS: Yeah. So there's a couple recovery programs and the word is out there that if you need a job this place will give you a chance. And then obviously in my own recovery, you meet people in the rooms… there's a guy that works for us now who was not making the most out of his life and was working in restaurant and offered a getaway from the booze night hours of a restaurant. You offer them a job to help get them out of their life and then, like I said, it's a two-way street. These people work really hard and they make my life possible, you know.

MO: You and Sarah started this business together and when you started this program was this an active discussion that you guys had, or is it just something that evolved organically because of what you've gone through and just your desire pay it forward in a very productive way?

PS: Hiring for this industry is always hard. I figured if it was gonna be hard, it might as well be worth something and I told Sarah that. She has always trusted me to staff, the kitchens how I saw fit - that's always been my role and I told her these people are going to be just as likely to not show up and quit, as, as a person off the street, but if they make it through the first part we'll have actually made a difference in someone's life. Once I did it the first time I realized that’s what I want the kitchen to be about.

MO: So she knows you’ve got it taken care of.

PS: Yeah. Even when people relapse and stuff -  it's not drama free - you wonder if this is worth it but at the end of the day I don’t get guys calling hung over. None of my guys are you know, going out and drinking, everybody that works for us are good parents and good people and we go way out of our way to help people, but it's the right thing to do, like, I just think it's the right thing to do.

I get to make an active difference in other people's lives so that everybody benefits.

MO: This is a choice for your business -  everybody benefits in great and wonderful ways and in a way you benefit, even more, because in an industry where loyalty is very rare, you have staff that have been with you forever, like kitchen staff, you say six and seven years.

Do you ever get any backlash or resistance when you discuss your staffing protocols?

PS: Whenever we're approached or someone wants to partner with us or invest in the company,  and we've been around long enough those conversations happen, the first thing I tell them is, this is how we staff, and this is how we will always staff. If you want to become a huge company and think that we could do it with you that's great but this is how people are always hired.

At the end of the day my work speaks for itself. People worry about the liabilities and it’s no more than anything else.

MO: Hopefully, beyond changing people’s lives you are also shifting perceptions, because we tend to view mental health as a socially unacceptable illness, no matter how it shows up, but especially with addicts.

PS: Yeah. Going back to the very beginning of the point is, no one will give these people a f!@#ing chance, but you want them to pick themselves up and simply stop using. Why can't they get out of their own way and why do they keep going to jail. Well, they go to jail because they can't get a job - there's tons of people that go back to jail because they belong in jail and they're not good people. But there's a lot of people that go back to jail because no one would give them a chance

MO: True, mental illness is in an indiscriminate disease, it doesn't just affect you if you're a bad person. But you do need help and support to deal with the disease.

PS: I mean that's what caused my relapse. We started the company and everything started going really good but I was still drinking. I used to drink because of my boss and I used to drink because I was poor and I used to drink because of this and that. And then I was day drinking after I got the kitchen going and it was a disaster. One day the big mess was too much so I stopped. And I went to a meeting and the first step was admitting your life was unmanageable. And the second step was believing that there is a power greater than yourself. I figured that's me sober. I've never been sober. I don't need God I'm definitely not turning it over to anybody. I'm not giving control over anything to anybody and so I spent three years working out doing CrossFit, two hours a day, five days six days a week, and building the company. After three years I was still miserable and still anxious and still bipolar and depressed. I bought all the stuff I ever wanted to buy and I didn't fix the problem. I told myself I wasn’t an alcoholic because of what I built, and I thought that being in shape and being successful and stuff like that meant that I wasn't sick. So, I started drinking again and convinced everybody that it wasn't a problem and this time my budget was bigger so even more problems…  

MO: What would you like folks to learn or take from our discussion today? Is there anything you want to add?

PS: Um, that, if you're inspired by this and you work in HR, or have anything to do with hiring, please copy what I'm doing.

Give these people a chance. Yes, you could you get burned, sure, but so could you by anyone that you hire. It's a roll of the dice, so you might as well roll the dice on people who really need it. Nobody else will give them a chance so you can be that person for them. Because, like Lois, my daughter, said - it really fills up your bucket.

MO: What a great place to end, thanks so much for sharing Pete – I know I walk away inspired to make a difference.

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