When “The New York Times” broke the story on Chicago Style’s debut earlier this year, I immediately bought a plane ticket. I had no official assignment or confirmed media credentials, but I knew that this was something important and potentially groundbreaking—a cocktail conference founded by three powerhouses in the industry, all women, who planned to address the social issues that plagued the bar world, from sexism and sustainability to lack of diversity.
Chicago Style would certainly make waves as an independent entity, but that it coincided with the Speed Rack USA national finals (an all-female cocktail competition that benefits breast cancer research) was a major bonus. Founders Shelby Allison (Lost Lake), Sharon Bronstein (The 86 Co.) and Caitlin Laman (Ace Hotel Chicago) were clear in their mission: Bring important topics to light through diverse panelists and presenters. The only thing we had to do was show up, listen and engage.
So I did exactly that. For three days, I joined the industry’s biggest players, men and women, as we tackled the big, and sometimes uncomfortable, questions of our profession. This is how it went.
Day 1: Tears and Rosé
I touched down in Chicago and promptly hopped a cab to the Freehand hotel, home to Broken Shaker and, as it turned out, many of the conference attendees. In the lobby, I recognized faces I’d seen behind some of the best bars in the country.
I settled into my room and prepared for the introductory undertaking of my maiden Chicago Style voyage: a casual speaking engagement over dinner with the 16 Speed Rack finalists on the subject of bridging the gap between the bartending community and beverage media. No pressure!
The finalists were both nervous and excited, as the top eight had yet to be announced. Competition founders Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix were on hand, and soon the conversation turned to the serious issues some women face in male-dominated industries, including harassment and assault. We talked about how we react to such news and how members of the media can and should serve as a resource and an ally. Tears were shed over rosé and pizza, and while we barely scratched the surface on the topic, I couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate primer to the week.
Day 2: Giving Back
The first day of seminars started off strong with a presentation titled “Causing a Stir: Empowering Underserved + Underrepresented Communities Within the Hospitality Industry.” It was hosted by Bacardi’s Colin Asare-Appiah and presented by Chandon; the panel was made up of Chicago natives Alexis Brown and Ariel E. Neal, the founders of Causing a Stir, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting the hospitality community through events and education. They talked about the problems facing Chicago’s South Side and outlined the organization’s evolution through the years.
Next up was “Community Spirits: Cocktail Bars as Active Community Members,” which gave a platform to those at the forefront of the bar world’s philanthropic sector. Moderator Jacyara de Oliveira (La Sirena Clandestina, El Che Bar) was joined onstage by Josh Harris (Trick Dog, The Bon Vivants), Bobby Heugel (OKRA Charity Saloon, Anvil Bar & Refuge), Ashley Novoa (Chicago Period Project) and Katipai Richardson Wilson (Dirty Precious). Each person spoke about the charities they represented, then the conversation pivoted to the industry’s general responsibility and approach to philanthropy.
After lunch, we returned with two more sessions: “A History of Black Bartenders in America” led by authors Chantal Martineau and David Wondrich and “Turn Up The Volume Without Lowering Your Standards: Bar Management in 2018” featuring Nandini Khaund (Cindy’s), Dianna Sanders (The Promontory) and Yael Vengroff (The Spare Room, Genghis Cohen), moderated by Erin Hayes of House Spirits Distillery.
After a quick breather, it was off to the Speed Rack finals at Revel Fulton Market. Emcees Simon Ford (The 86 Co.) and Robin Nance (Beam Suntory) led the charge as the eight finalists took the stage. Haley Traub (Dutch Kills, Fresh Kills) was named this year’s winner, and her victory was an emotional one. Speed Rack has a way of lifting up female bar professionals while also raising money to battle breast cancer. And though crowning the winner is typically the pinnacle of the evening, this year’s event was extra emotional as four finalists gathered onstage to donate their hair to cancer patients. The night raised more than $6,000 for the cause and about as many tears.
Day 3: Keep the Conversation Going
Day three kicked off with a power yoga and meditation session, with the conference filled with fresh faces ready to take on another round of seminars. We eased into the day with a menu design session led by Jen Delos Reyes, of the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois, alongside panelists Natasha David (Nitecap), Iain Griffiths (Trash Tiki, Dandelyan) and Morgan Schick (Trick Dog, The Bon Vivants).
The next seminar, “Community Accountability,” was the first and only to incorporate interactive group workshopping. The room was divided into four groups, with each given its own real-world industry problem to diagnose and solve from an intersectional feminist approach. (We spent the first part of the seminar exploring intersectional feminism, both as a term and as a movement.) The session was led by Ashtin Berry (Dark and Stirred), who I’d once seen present at Bacardi’s Spirit Forward summit in New York and can say that the power of her message is rivaled only by her ability to command a room as she delivers it.
Another seminar, “You Are Welcome Here: A Conversation About Intersectionality and Hospitality,” brought Marrero, Mony Bunni (Lustau and Prairie School), Kisira Hill (Lost Lake) and Liz Weck (Howard Brown Health, Lost & Found: Dyke Bar) to the stage for a deep dive into the state of equality in the bar business, this time seen through a slightly different lens as four minority women shared their personal journeys and experiences. Their stories were remarkable, full of insight and detail. I suddenly felt a renewed confidence in my feminism, and a sense of peace knowing that we’d all taken this small journey together.
And just like that, the conference concluded. People rolled their bags into the lobby and waited for cars to shuttle them to the airport or back home to their next bar shift.
Later, I found myself sitting at a restaurant table amid a revolving cast from the previous three days—bar owners, bartenders, brand ambassadors, women and friends. Inevitably, the conversation swung back to the main focus of the conference: inclusivity. We agreed that things seem very broken right now but that there’s a clear path to improvement and that path begins right here, with conversations like these. We just have to keep talking.