On the surface it makes sense. Jeff Strong has worked in the restaurant industry for the entirety of his adult life—he started at Jeff Ruby’s Carlo & Johnny when he was still in high school and bounced around different places in the city until his early 30s. So wanting to have his own place, run his own kitchen, was a seemingly natural progression. That was the plan with Grand Central Delicatessen in Pleasant Ridge, which Strong co-founded with owner and significant other Sheelah Parker. The name, menu, and motif were inspired by Strong’s childhood growing up on the east coast and visiting Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Though for both of them, it was more significant than simply being their own boss.
“Everything about my life now,” says Strong, “most people would never believe.”
He’s a recovering heroin addict.
And he’s right—it’s not something you’d guess upon seeing his broad shoulders, expertly slicked back hair, and curling, vaudeville mustache feverishly stacking Dagwoods behind the deli counter. But the dependence hounded him for years, dating back to getting hooked on opioids in his late teens before transitioning to heroin soon after. Drug use in the restaurant industry is a known issue, but for Strong, the typical marijuana and cocaine vices were never the problem. This was also the mid-2000s, before the heroin epidemic truly took a stranglehold on the region and across the country, but the drug had that same familiar, debilitating impact on his life. He always managed to keep a job and roof over his head, but he overdosed on multiple occasions, was arrested on numerous charges, and got mired in the court system. There were rock-bottom moments—like the time a MRSA infection reached his heart valve, laid him up in the hospital for three months, and forced him to relearn how to walk—and broken relationships with friends and family. Second and third chances piled up like junked cars abandoned on a highway shoulder. Every attempt to get clean failed.
“I don’t know what tempted me to try heroin, but I can look back now and know that I wasn’t happy with where I was and what I was doing,” says Strong. “I always knew there was an issue, but I couldn’t figure it out. Couldn’t quit cold turkey, couldn’t do it this way. Tried the Suboxone route, that didn’t work. My dad tried to help me. Not that I wasn’t willing, but I would still go back to that underlying issue.”
It wasn’t immediately obvious, but Strong’s fate turned as Parker became a bigger presence in his life. The two had known each other for years—Strong was a high school friend of Parker’s sister—and even in the throes of his addiction, Strong was a rock for Parker through some tough personal times. As their friendship developed into something more, Parker dug in. “I felt like we were helping each other,” she says. “I knew he was worth saving. It wasn’t the life he wanted, but he was surrounded by it all the time, and no one ever said no. I said no.”
The true turning point came after an arrest for heroin possession in September 2014. Strong was sentenced to three years probation and court-enrolled in the Prospect House rehab program. More or less forced to get clean, Strong also had a clearer mind thanks to Parker’s constant influence. “She’s a fighter,” he says. Parker eventually gave him a book—Chasing the Scream, written by British author Johann Hari and released in January 2015—that examined the history of drug criminalization. A section of it focused on the innovative “Rat Park” addiction experiments of the 1970s that argued it was not drugs that caused addiction, but rather circumstance and surroundings. Hari connected the hypothesis to (among other examples) the high percentage of American soldiers who got hooked on heroin during the Vietnam War, but then stopped upon returning, most without rehab.
It was a revelation for Strong, turning the dial enough to let the light in. He realized his addiction was a product of his displacement, a depression that set in when his family moved from New Jersey to Cincinnati as a young teenager.
“Sheelah giving me that book was the catalyst, and her voice of reason has helped immeasurably,” says Strong. “I need to have good things around me and do good things. With that, I removed everything from my life that was negative.”
“When I say it out loud it sounds really simple—he read a book, and I said no, and here we are,” says Parker. “But I trust him implicitly. I know that he’s never going back.”
Strong realizes how fortunate he is, both because of the people he had in his life who wouldn’t give up on, but also his ability to recognize the root of his issue and rectify it.
“I can’t take all the credit,” he says. “It comes down to my family, to Sheelah, the community I’m in. But I don’t look back. I don’t have dreams about it, it never crosses my mind. I’m probably in that 1 percent, but I can understand and appreciate what led me to where I was.”
Starting and operating a restaurant is a challenge regardless of circumstance, but for Strong and Parker, the reward holds more weight. It’s a part of that journey Strong talks about—stripping out the negativity, surrounding oneself with good things—but it’s also an opportunity to give back. They’ve taken every opportunity to invest in and involve Pleasant Ridge and the surrounding communities, whether volunteering for neighborhood festivals, providing food to families or organizations in need, teaming up with places like Cincinnati Pet Food Pantry, or being open to hiring those who need a second chance or help getting on their feet, who would otherwise get overlooked or stereotyped.
It’s why Strong chose to share his story, too. He understands there may be some who are a bit scared or skeptical or slow to embrace him—despite the fact that he is completely healthy and has been clean for a few years now. But he also knows that most everything people hear about heroin and addicts is negative, and that hiding his truth doesn’t help anyone. And that sharing it might.
“There’s a stigma, and I hope that changes a little bit. It’s always going to be an uphill battle. You have to look at people differently,” says Strong. “One kind gesture can go a long way. It could change somebody completely. All the kind gestures that Sheelah’s given me have really molded and helped me.”
It hasn’t been easy. Strong is still on probation, navigating the many consequent obligations while managing a new business. Merely opening the deli was itself a years-long process as well, and even success has been hard—they served so many customers at the grand opening last month, they ran out of bread.
“I have a purpose for what I’m doing now. I always wanted to have my own restaurant, but I never thought that would happen. Now I’m doing that,” he says. “I will just never take away what I’ve done, because this has so much more to offer me than where I was.”