“Don’t talk religion or politics” used to be the working mantra for barbers, bartenders and Thanksgiving dinner. But oh have times changed. This month, New York City saw the opening of Coup (as in “d’état”), a bar with a thirst for social justice, backed by owner/restaurateur Ravi DeRossi, who owns more than a dozen properties in the city, and partners Max Green and Sother Teague. One-hundred percent of Coup’s profits are donated to several programs and charities, including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the ASPCA and the NRDC.
For each $20 Daiquiri or Dark & Stormy you buy, you receive a token that you can drop into jars dedicated to each cause. Guest bartenders from prominent spots like NYC’s Death & Co and Seattle’s Rob Roy will swing by from time to time and pour their signature cocktails. TheNew York Times covered the opening, called it an “antidote to Trump.”
“Actions speak louder than words,” says DeRossi. “I’ve never been politically active in my life until now. But I’ve never felt as strongly about politics as I do now.”
And he’s not alone. The ACLU reportedly received $24 million in online donations the week following the presidential inauguration, almost six times its annual average. “I know a lot of companies want to stay out of politics,” says Natasha David, the co-owner of Nitecap, a popular Manhattan bar that has been hosting its own fundraisers for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. “But nowadays they can put their money where their mouths are.”
Last April, Target announced it would “continue to stand for inclusivity,” explicitly stating protection for LGBTQ individuals, allowing customers and employees to use whichever restroom corresponded to their gender identity, defying a since-rescinded North Carolina “bathroom law.” The NCAA college basketball association also took a stance against the bill, refusing to bring tournaments to North Carolina until it was fully repealed. The actions of both companies would have seemed unlikely, even suicidal, just a couple of years ago.
DeRossi acknowledges that the philanthropic bar concept didn’t start with Coup. He cites Bobby Heugel’s OKRA Charity Saloon in Houston as inspiration. Heugel, who also owns The Nightingale Room, The Pastry War, Tongue-Cut Sparrow and Anvil Bar & Refuge (which carries sustainable and socially responsible products), made a splash in 2015 when he dumped his bars’ entire inventory of Flor de Caña rum over concerns that the Nicaraguan rum industry was deliberately endangering its fieldworkers’ health. Several bars around the country followed suit. He has since reconciled with the brand, and in February the brand posted an essay on Facebook explaining that it’s taking workers’ issues “very seriously.”
Of course, beverage brands haven’t always had the best luck when taking up the big issues: Pepsi set a new standard for tone deaf with a recent ad depicting Kendall Jenner ditching a high-fashion modeling job to step in between Black Lives Matters protesters and impossibly good-looking riot police. She hands a cop a Pepsi and somehow restores peace and love to the world. The public blowback was enormous.
“The problem is that Pepsi looked at people and their concerns as a demographic to market to instead of humans with real concerns and a desire for change,” says John Rexer, the founder of Ilegal Mezcal. Rexer knows a thing or two about politically charged marketing. Last spring, the brand launched its Donald Eres Un Pendejo (“Donald You’re An Asshole”) campaign, plastering billboards throughout major cities. Ilegal is hosting a spring music series this year benefiting Planned Parenthood.
“To do this right, your campaign has to come from a real place,” says Rexer. “Do you really care about the environment or women’s rights or immigration reform? We’re a little company with beliefs that we feel strongly about. And we’ve got a big social network. But we knew we were taking a big risk and that there could be repercussions. We’ve had a lot of people come at us on the street or on Twitter and say, ‘How dare you!’”
If Coup succeeds, it likely won’t be because of how much money it raises for good causes but how much influence it has outside of the New York City bubble. DeRossi says that Coup, like all bars, is meant to be a place where like-minded people can get together and have meaningful conversations. “There are 12 million people in New York,” he says. “And 10 million of them want to vent.
“Something relatively small like this bar going nonprofit could have bigger ripples in terms of the conversation that comes out of it,” says David Kaplan, the co-founder of Death & Co and the bartender at Coup’s opening. “People are more involved nationwide, even on the smallest level.” It’s possible that this NYC enclave could convince a baker in Casper, Wyo., or a coffee house in Boise, Idaho, to take a leap of faith and become more politically involved.
One thing that makes replicating Coup a challenge is the advantage DeRossi has with his ongoing business success. He already held the lease on the space, initially launching a seafood-focused restaurant. “We knew we wanted to do something else,” he says. Going nonprofit might be a lot tougher for other independent business owners. Kaplan says that DeRossi is “in a perfect position to be able to do this. Not very many people are.”
How long can a not-for-profit bar serve its function in one of the priciest real estate zones in Manhattan? “I don’t know,” says DeRossi. “We’re not going to walk away with a dime from this ever, but that’s OK. We’re doing something that’s heartfelt and important.”