Politics

Drinks Pros Embrace Political Activism

As the presidential election nears, bartenders, winemakers, and hospitality workers use their skills and their platforms to mobilize like never before

On September 30one day after the first presidential debateJoanna Carpenter was coaching a dozen restaurant professionals through text banking their networks in battleground states to get out the vote in November. It was the latest in a series of weekly Zoom sessions that she hosts for political action. 

A beverage consultant and actress, Carpenter sharpened her political skills last summer, when she organized 100-plus colleagues to call on senators for stimulus money for the pandemic-ravaged restaurant industry. 

As the November election loomed closer, her energies and organizational skills turned toward electoral politics. She’s not alone. A growing number of bartenders, sommeliers, and restaurant owners have leveraged their experiences lobbying for pro-industry legislation into electoral political activism. They are leading voter registration efforts, campaigning for progressive candidates, and even running for public office, marking 2020 as the year that the drinks community found its political voice.

COVID Awakens the Industry

Last spring was a crash course in political activism for many. “We woke up on March 17 when COVID closed the country. We didn’t understand how much of a force we were,” said master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, cofounder of Colorado’s Frasca Hospitality Group. “We are the biggest private-sector job creator in the country with our 11 million jobs. Once that tidal wave of need was voiced, it did make a movement.”

Stuckey was a founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) created in April to represent the nation’s half-million local restaurants and bars. In early October, the IRC held a press conference to announce an important victory: the House of Representatives’ passed the HEROES Act, which includes a $120 billion Restaurants Revitalization Fund (they are urging the Senate to pass it as well). 

It was a declaration of the newfound power of an industry that has long been civically engaged and philanthropic, but has rarely flexed its political muscles. With so much at stake in the coming election, the industry is now galvanizing for change in the wider political landscape. Carpenter sees a “unification of the political voice in the hospitality industry” taking shape, fueled by the “empathy and language skills” that she and many others honed behind the bar. 

Bars Become Political Platforms

“I’m watching a president, and our state senator backing him, let thousands die from COVID,” says Briana Volk. “I don’t see how I could keep my mouth shut.”

Owners of Maine’s Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, Volk and her husband Andrew are co-founders of Collins Against Collins. In 2018, using Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins as a symbolic target, they organized bars nationwide to sell Collins-style drinks and donate a portion of sales to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to help flip the House blue. 

For 2020, the Volks, along with bartender Hayley Wilson and Gin & Luck’s Alex Day, created the book Collins Against Collins: Drinks for a Revolution. With recipes and community activism stories from LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and womxn drinks pros, the book, now in pre-sales, drops in digital format on Election Day. Proceeds go to the DCCC and mixologist Ashtin Berry’s Radical Xchange, which promotes intersectional education in the industry. 

As an independent owner, Volk sees her activism as a privilege and a responsibility. “We have the freedom to push for things that we believe in,” she says. “People say, ‘Don’t get political behind the bar because guests are there to have fun.’ But I hope with what’s going on in the world, there is also a place to use bars as platforms.”

Mila Ramirez, co-owner of Chicago’s Latinx brewery 5 Rabbit Cerveceria, uses her access to community to start political conversations. “A brewery is a meeting space; we can discuss politics,” she says. In 2015, 5 Rabbit was making a custom beer for Trump Tower Chicago when the future president started denigrating Mexicans. Ramirez and her partners ripped up the contract and rebranded the lager Chinga Tu Pelo—“Fuck Your Hair”—with label art of Trump’s coiffure. They called a later batch La Protesta in opposition to family separation at the border. The beer raised funds to train adults to accompany minors at deportation hearings. 

This year, they’re using Chinga Tu Pela as a focal point to get out the Latinx vote. On weekends, 5 Rabbit hosts a voter registration drive, for which Ramirez has gotten some flak. “Not everyone thinks a brewery should be involved in politics—‘Just make your beer, don’t meddle’ —but it’s such an important election,” she says. “It’s a responsibility to speak up against injustices.”

“It’s a palpable risk that can alienate clientele. It’s not about left or right. This is about sane and insane.” – Kashy Khaledi, owner, Ashes & Diamonds Winery

Napa winemaker/owner of Ashes & Diamonds, Kashy Khaledi is also willing to take heat for his activism. “It’s a palpable risk that can alienate clientele,” he says. But 2020’s wildfires galvanized him. “We’ve been burning for two months. This is not about left or right. This is about sane and insane.” 

With a quarter of eligible Napa residents not registered to vote, Khaledi believes that greater enfranchisement in wine country will shore up the political will to address climate change. At his winery Khaledi hosted “Crush the Vote,” where producers from Jolie-Laide Wines, Matthiasson Wines, Massican, and half a dozen other wineries poured for free to attendees who signed up to vote.

Harnessing Brand Power for Influence 

Josh Stylmen sees political clout in drinks lovers’ brand loyalty. “If people are going to associate their identity with our product, let’s wield whatever influence we have,” says the CEO of Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing

Reprising an effort that raised over $100,000 in 2018, Threes has organized more than 100 breweries to produce their own People Power Beer, with 10 percent of sales going to the ACLU to support racial justice, criminal justice reform, and voters’ rights. The collective effort represents a sea change: “When we first reached out to breweries, it was, ‘How would we even do that?’ Now it seems commonplace. Companies are far more comfortable wearing their political leanings on the sleeve than they used to be.”

“Companies are far more comfortable wearing their political leanings on the sleeve than they used to be.” – Josh Stylmen, Threes Brewing

Regal Wine Imports’ Michael Whidden supported enfranchisement, too, through Vines4Votes, an online auction benefiting the ACLU of Texas’s battle against voter suppression. With donations from across the wine world, the 76 lots included everything from a magnum of Eva Fricke Mellifluous Riesling 2018 with an opening bid of $30 to a Comte Liger Belair La Romanée Grand Cru 2007 that started at $2,700. The auction, which closed on October 16, raised more than $50,000. “This is a democracy,” says Whidden, “and advocating for greater access to democracy should be unassailable.” 

Whidden had recruited an all-star team of collaborators, including journalist Julia Coney, founder of Black Wine Professionals. “If I want to effect change, as a leader, I have to speak up—not just in the wine industry, but about what’s not right in the world,” says the Texas native. “We need something different than this current administration. Being Black is already exhausting, but it’s really exhausting being Black in Trump’s America. I can focus on wine and justice at the same time.”

Out in the Streets

Houston bartender and mixologist Bevin Biggers is an experienced street activist. Five years ago, a photograph of Biggers holding a sign that read, “We live in a world where trained cops can panic & act on impulse but untrained citizens must remain calm w/a gun in their face” became a meme. After the murder of George Floyd, she reposted it, writing, “Cops continuously kill my people. All we become are hashtags. I’m not flattered, I’m tired.”

She employed her bartender skills to assist the Black Lives Matter protest marches in June. “One record-hot day, I brought 10,000 bottles of water, first-aid kits, posters, markers, and a table for people to make signs.” Her professional skills made her adept at dispensing supplies, too, she adds: “I was faster than anyone else, and the fastest people with me were two other bartenders.”

When protests welled up against the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Black trans activist and bartender Phelix Crittenden, who worked for SoHo Concessions pre-COVID, took that approach to another level. Crittenden, the founder of the community empowerment organization BO$$, or Blacks Organizing Strategic Success, handed out water, snacks, and medical supplies—an act of service that got them pepper sprayed and tear gassed. Eventually, they became Black Lives Matter Louisville’s official supplies manager.

“Being a bartender, you have to navigate a space where you might not know anybody that night, but you make them comfortable and feel you care about them,” Crittenden says. “I have to make people in the movement feel I value them, so that they will protect me and other Black and Brown lives on the front line.”

The Power of Hospitality-Infused Activism

Other pros are using the same service skills on behalf of candidates. Lindsey Johnson, founder of the bartender advocacy collective Lush Life Productions, phone banks 12 hours a week for Amy McGrath, the Kentucky Democrat attempting to unseat U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. 

“When I joined the campaign, one of things I liked about the training was that communication was centered around how we listen,” Johnson says. “If you’re trying to serve someone, whether it be at a bar or for an election, you have to hear what they want and deliver it in a way that serves everybody.”

“A lot of bartenders I work with have strong ideologies and are progressive. But few were politically active, or even registered to vote. That’s changing.” – Lindsey Johnson, Lush Life Productions 

She’s been recruiting others in the industry to pitch in, and the shift of attitude among her peers is palpable. “A lot of bartenders I work with have strong ideologies and are progressive. But few were politically active, or even registered to vote,” she says. “That’s changing. A lot are getting registered. A bunch have been volunteering for campaigns.”

Luis Hernandez, owner of the consultancy Cocktail Illustrators, Santa Teresa Rum brand ambassador, and beverage director at Brooklyn’s Bohemien Bar, got active through Joanna Carpenter’s phone banking sessions. On a call with a staffer in Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s office, he shared an Old-Fashioned recipe. “It was cool to find we can bond over food and drink, and she was more receptive to what I was saying. ‘Usually people scream at us,’ she said. ‘Thanks for being nice,’” Hernandez recalls. “That’s hospitality 101.”

Hernandez joined Brooklyn Young Democrats, where he’s working on issues relevant to Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez. Now, following in the footsteps of AOC—a bartender-turned-Congresswoman herself—he’s contemplating his own run, as an Afro-Latino mixologist who would bring the perspectives of an immigrant and a service worker to public office. 

In San Luis Obispo, California, the impact of COVID-19 on the hospitality community convinced Robin Wolf to run for city council. The owner of SLO Bitter Company, bar manager at Paso Robles’ The Hatch, and a 2019 Tales of the Cocktail winner, Wolf says, “We are a tourist economy, but we haven’t seen representation from these industries. We need an advocate like myself who understands the workings of these businesses and how we have to pivot every day, because there is more creative shifting [required] in our future.” 

Wolf hopes to bring the pragmatic creativity of her bar work to addressing problems around climate change, affordable housing, civil rights, and racism. “In hospitality, I often encounter different perspectives than I have, but my job is to bring everyone to the table and make sure that everyone has a good experience,” she says. “That will serve me as well on city council.”

One Through Line

Mark Schettler sums up the shared sentiment of  his increasingly politically active peers: “How can I not waste the opportunity that’s in front of me right now to get more done?” 

General manager at the French Quarter’s Bar Tonique, temporarily closed during the pandemic, Schettler is also the founder of Shift Change, a nonprofit for sexual violence prevention in the service industry, and he currently serves on three pandemic response committees for New Orleans government. He’s been active in local politics for half a decade.

Now he’s phone banking for local progressive candidates and text banking for the Census and voter turnout through the digital platform Resistance Labs. He, too, is contemplating public office in the future. 

“Bartending is healing work,” says Schettler. “People come together at the bar, talk about it or not, celebrate with friends or mourn. In the course of helping people behind the bar, if you’re listening, you start to understand more about the way things outside your bar affect the people in it. So this is all one through line. You’re holding space for people. Don’t tell me there’s no politics in bars,” he says. “Living in America is a political act.

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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