Kent cafe bonds those recovering from substance abuse: ‘It becomes a family’

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

KENT — October 23 was a special day for Brian Verrilli. It marked the Kent man’s one-year anniversary of sobriety.

In that year, Verilli’s life completely changed. He has new hobbies, a new home and a new job at the front of the house at Wilson’s Bakery & Cafe, which opened in August.

Wilson’s, which is owned by Kent’s High Watch Recovery Center, employs only those who are in recovery from substance abuse disorder — from the chefs to the bakers to the baristas.

“We reach out to individuals in the recovery community, many of whom are alumni of High Watch, and they become the backbone of our employee base,” said Jason Perillo, chief marketing officer at High Watch, an in-patient residential treatment facility for drugs and alcohol that opened in 1939.

Wilson’s was named after the late Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, the High Watch program is founded on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Wilson — who founded AA in the late 1930s — was on High Watch’s original board of directors in 1939.

Aside from the bond coworkers can form with one another, Perillo said High Watch employees tend to feel especially close since they have the shared connection of addiction — and recovery.

“It’s a small community of recovery so it becomes a family,” he said, adding they develop strong bonds. “When you’re in recovery yourself and you work with folks who are in recovery, it makes it easier to be successful in your recovery because you have that support network around you at work.”

He said unlike other restaurants with staffing issues, Wilson’s, with 20 employees, is holding its own.

“We haven’t struggled to find good employees, but at the same time we are seeing some of the same challenges that the rest of the restaurant world is seeing for well over a year when it comes to hiring,” Perillo said.

About Wilson’s Bakery & Cafe

Wilson's Bakery & Cafe at 10 N. Main St. in Kent, is open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

Reservations are not required. Takeout is available.

For information, visit wilsonsbyhighwatch.com or call 959-300-0080.

Since Wilson’s opened, Perillo said the business has received strong support from the community.

“We were a little bit concerned that perhaps the stigma of recovery might keep people away and the opposite has happened and the Kent community has really embraced Wilson’s,” he said.

He added Wilson’s has been “packed” for lunch every day, he said, getting 400 to 500 customers daily Friday through Sunday.

“You can’t get a seat at lunch,” Perillo said. “We are mobbed all the time.”

The culinary team at High Watch, together with the management team at Wilson’s, developed the menu. For the first month, it only served its own employees.

“We did this ... to make sure we were doing it right and ... to test the menu to see what worked and didn’t work,” Perillo said.

The top seller on the menu is the Build-Your-Own-Breakfast Sandwich, Perillo said.

Salads include eggplant, tomato and pickled green beans, and Brussels sprouts. Sandwiches include prime rib, herb-roasted chicken and prosciutto and Parmesan.

The cafe seats 15, and has three tables outdoors.

The idea for creating a place like Wilson’s came about as a way to help graduate of the program.

“We, as a company, felt it was the right thing to do,” Perillo said. “Our guests are only with us for a certain period of time and one of the things that we believe very strongly in is giving them the tools for successful recovery after they exit High Watch. One of the things that we wanted to do was provide skill-building and career opportunities, and Wilson’s was a natural fit for that goal.”

One guest’s story

Verrilli was the first employee hired by Wilson’s.

He works full time at Wilson’s in the front of the house, having worked before in the High Watch kitchen.

At 25, he has been through a lot.

“I started smoking weed and doing drugs when I was 13,” said Verrilli, who grew up in Southington. “I always wanted to be out of my head so I didn’t have to deal with any emotions. I wanted to numb everything for a pretty long time.”

In time, Verrilli became increasingly addicted to his habit, and developed a drinking problem.

Things got worse.

“When me and an ex-girlfriend split, I didn’t care any longer. I thought my future is destroyed,” he said. “I dove pretty deep in the opiates and fentanyl.”

Although he was working at a “pretty nice” construction job, he said, no matter how much was getting paid, he still couldn’t keep up with his habit.

“It got to the point, when I was just so deep in the addiction, I thought, ‘There’s no way out,’” he said. “I thought this was the way I’ll be living for the rest of my life. I didn’t know there was a way to get sober.”

After two suicide attempts and a plan for a third, he made a phone call that would change his life.

“I was on my way to go park to try to commit suicide again by purposely overdosing,” he said.

He chose a different path — and never looked back.

“I was at a Home Depot parking lot and pulled over. I called High Watch,” he said, adding his mother had sent him a brochure on the facility many months earlier.

High Watch picked him up a few days later.

“I left my house for detox on Halloween and was there 57 days,” Verrilli said. “I left the day after Christmas.”

He said the only way to get sober is to really want it.

“No one is going to get sober if they are doing it for someone else,” he said. “You have to do it solely for yourself.”

Now he wants to give back.

“My goal is to be able to work helping others in any way I can,” Verrilli said. “I am getting my first in-the-door working at Wilson’s, trying as much as I can here to help out other people.”

Verrilli has become an entrepreneur. He makes and sells tie-dyed shirts. His Instagram is Dyin’Brianco.

He said he feels he has lived separate lives — one in the past and one now — “and the one now is beyond your wildest dreams,” he said. “From that rock bottom where I was, to now. It’s unreal.”

“There is a way out,” Verrilli added.

sfox@milfordmirror.com 203-948-9802.