Late last year, as tales of rape and sexual harassment in Hollywood became front-page news, giving way to the #MeToo movement, many in the cocktail world looked on with a sense of bewildered familiarity. The bar industry, long known for its slippery boundaries in the workplace, had already begun taking itself to task.
In October of 2016, a website called The Reality of Sexual Assault in the Cocktail Community published accounts of sexual assault by a well-known Los Angeles bartender. Another that came out of Toronto’s College Street Bar that same month ended with its owner arrested for forcible confinement and sexual assault of a 24-year-old woman.
A year later, in November 2017, the staff of Louisville’s iconic Haymarket Whiskey Bar resigned over rape allegations against its owner. The next month saw a sodomy charge filed with the Los Angeles Police Department against another of that city’s high-profile bartenders.
Call it an awakening or a tipping point, but the cascade of accusations against powerful men in the industry had made one thing painstakingly clear: The time for change in America’s bars was long overdue.
“The bar and restaurant industries have been struggling with harassment issues for years,” says Nandini Khaund, a bartender at Cindy’s and Chicago Athletic Association in the heart of downtown Chicago. With help from her employer, international hotelier company Two Roads Hospitality, she began looking for ways to educate her staff on preventive tactics in dealing with sexual misconduct at work.
Khaund and her team introduced Cindy’s “Unspoken Rules of the Bar,” which empower servers and bartenders to do what they think is right to protect their employees from harassment.
When a guest insisted on putting one woman’s drinks on his tab without her consent, the rules presented Khaund with an opportunity to eliminate the “customer is always right” maxim. “I gave our staff the agency to protect the guest and themselves rather than feel like they had to acquiesce for the sake of hospitality,” she says.
“It takes a lot of emotional labor to be there for your staff,” she says. “It’s really integral to devise systems that make them feel safe and empowered.”
For those who don’t feel supported in their own workplaces, sympathetic ears can be found—if you know where to look.
Speed Rack, a women’s cocktail competition now in its seventh season, has invited female bartenders from all over the country to be part of its professional network. Founded by industry vets Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix, the organization focuses on raising the profile of women in the bar business and in doing so has provided a framework for discussing the issues that many female bartenders face, including sexual misconduct.
Marrero and Mix are no strangers to the subject. Both, for example, say they had known early on that Ken Friedman—the New York City restaurateur whose pattern of assault was documented in “The New York Times” last year—was someone to stay away from.
“With the Ken Friedman story, specifically, a lot of the women mentioned were close friends of mine, so the rumors were around,” says Marrero. She hopes the Speed Rack community will bring women together to look out for each other.
At Mix’s bar, Leyenda, in Brooklyn, you’ll always find at least one woman working behind the stick. She believes that that kind of female representation is key to fostering a safe, comfortable environment for women. “There’s something to be said about having more female presence in a bar,” says Mix. “It says, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be behind that bar, too, lady. You’re also empowered!’”
Leyenda hangs postcards in the bar’s bathrooms with tips on how to act in situations of sexual harassment and violence. All employees are instructed to read them. “It’s not the perfect protocol,” she says. “But it is a protocol.”
This May, three bartenders—Shelby Allison of Lost Lake, Sharon Bronstein of The 86 Co., and Caitlin Laman of Ace Hotel—will host the first Chicago Style cocktail conference. The event will feature a series of workshops and panel discussions, which they hope will begin creating a more complete picture of the cocktail world—one in which white men with mustaches aren’t presented as the end-all, be-all of bartending talent.
None of the founders are strangers to the hostility many women face while working behind the bar. “I started as a young woman working in Las Vegas,” says Allison. “I had a job for just two days; on the first day, the general manager looked at my face and said, ‘When you come back tomorrow, I’d like a little more this and a little more this,’ gesturing to my face and breasts. He also told me he didn’t like my name, so he was going to call me by a different name.”
Allison, Bronstein and Laman say they’ve already seen changes in their own bars following the amplification of #MeToo and emergence of Time’s Up, a legal defense fund that provides support to those who’ve experienced sexual harassment, assault or abuse in the workplace.
“The microaggressions are no longer accepted,” says Laman. “There are subtle digs and descriptor words that people are slowly realizing aren’t OK to say. That’s been awesome to see.”
Laman cites the importance of making sure employees feel at ease behind the stick. “Work is supposed to be a safe place,” she says. “If someone is making you uncomfortable, whether intentionally or not, let’s talk about it.” When everyone behind the bar feels safe, she says, then everyone can create a better experience for the guest.
Another Chicago bartender, Jacyara de Oliveira, who won the Seattle Speed Rack competition in 2017 and now works as the beverage director at El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina, has built a language around complicated situations and strategies for conflict resolution into the procedures for employees at her bars.
“Often you just don’t know what to do when someone makes a lewd comment or acts inappropriately because you’re in shock,” says De Oliveira. “Having the language and practice to use it in those situations is helpful.”
But creating open communication that avoids victim-blaming can be difficult. “We’re all coming to the conclusion that it’s a complicated issue, and most of us are not educated on how to deal with it,” says De Oliveira. “Prioritizing that education so that we are acting responsibly for our guests and employees is key.”
Good faith protocols aside, the industry faces a massive challenge in educating a cocktail community that spans more than a half-million working professionals across the U.S.
One solution, says Mix, is for liquor brands to put together a panel of experts to create a standardized code of conduct that could function as a guideline for the industry. “We need the same language,” she says. “And it needs to be widespread.”
Khaund believes that anyone who doesn’t begin to take these issues seriously will soon see their businesses go under.
“Patriarchal constructs exist in every corporate and creative environment, no matter how ‘woke’ we try to be,” she says. “Kitchens, bars, executive boards and our entire industry are still struggling to establish systems that elevate rather than oppress. It’s going to take time, but we’re already at it on a grassroots and local level. If the dinosaurs don’t acknowledge it, I truly believe they will go extinct.”