In a drinks purchasing landscape transformed over the past two years, how do beverage alcohol suppliers—both large and small, emerging and established—succeed? This was a central focus of this year’s Bar Convent Brooklyn (BCB), held on June 14 and 15 at Industry City, which welcomed more than 3,800 attendees and 163 exhibitors over the two-day event.
Prioritizing sustainable practices, creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive drinks industry, and understanding and investing in ecommerce were already part of the beverage alcohol conversation pre-pandemic, however, these issues have been accelerated in recent years—and brand owners and operators can no longer ignore them. BCB educational seminars and panels offered new insights and concrete takeaways for alcohol supplier success in an ever-shifting landscape.
Getting the Most Out of Digital Channels
Unsurprisingly, many Bar Convent Brooklyn discussions centered around the increasing importance of ecommerce and making the most of digital tools and transactions. “The transition era is here,” said Tim Angelillo, the CEO of cocktail kit delivery business Sourced Craft Cocktails, in a seminar titled “Rethinking Channel Strategy Post-Pandemic.”
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The added value of the “non-premise,” as Angelillo refers to it, is the amount of consumer data available for brands to capture along with their digital transactions. “We’re not trying to replace the bar,” he added. “We’re trying to make the bar a better experience for the consumer because [the brands] know what she drinks when she goes to the bar. That’s how to use data to your advantage.”
But to put this data to use, brands first need to figure out how to capture that data. The digitization of bar and restaurant menus, for instance, provides an opportunity to analyze not only the types of cocktails offered by a given establishment, but who the spirits on the menu are owned and distributed by; this can tell an emerging brand whether they’re likely to have success getting a placement at that bar.
During a seminar titled “Unlocking the Value of Virtual,” Andrew Levy, the senior vice president of strategic partnerships at B2B ecommerce marketplace Provi (the parent company of SevenFifty Daily), noted that the proliferation of digital alcohol marketplaces has made advertising data more accessible. Unlike traditional advertising platforms, digital advertising offers data that can provide insight into the impact of campaigns. “With former media campaigns, there was no measurement of ROI,” said Sara Harmelin, the vice president of digital innovation at Allied Beverage Group. “[Suppliers] can get accurate feedback with online marketing.”
But this move towards the “non-premise” also means that brands need to fully invest in digital channels. “Walk the digital aisle, own your product image, and make sure your brand content is out there in the format you want it to be in,” said Levy.
Prioritizing Sustainability, from Start to Finish
Sustainability was high on the agenda from the get-go; BCB collaborated with Barr Hill to offset the physical 73,000-square-foot footprint of the event by planting the equivalent footage of new pollinator habitat. But multiple seminars were also held on sustainability initiatives in the industry, with a focus on how brands can adapt to the escalating climate crisis and become proactive in instigating much-needed changes. As Steph Jordan, the founder of the bee-friendly Avallen Spirits, said, “It is important we understand as an industry we have to be part of the solution.”
“The Sustainable Future of Drinking” seminar went into detail on how panelists like Good Vodka cofounder Mark Byrne and Dairy Distillery founder Omar Mcdonald built sustainable spirits brands by repurposing sugar-based waste from other industries for distillation. Byrne described the company’s seven-year-long journey to source and redirect the sugar-rich wastage from a coffee farm in Colombia to their distillery in New York. “The benefit is every single bottle removes such a volume of waste it offsets a 40-mile drive in the car,” he said.
“People often think using waste there’s no economic value, but there is,” added Mcdonald, whose Vodkow is made with unused milk permeate from a dairy in Ontario. “We get our milk product for free. We don’t have to pay for our sugar. That’s how you can have both economic and environmental benefits.”
Another broad focus across panels was on rethinking packaging and transportation. For example, a simple solution for reducing a brand’s carbon footprint is to bottle as close to the point of sale as possible, which might involve shipping in bulk—using services like EcoSPIRITS, which also exhibited at BCB—and then finding satellite bottling plants, to avoid shipping a heavy product made primarily of water. Jordan pointed out this can be economically advantageous in terms of taxation, too. Panelists at “A Farm To Glass Model—Putting Producers and Produce at the Center of the Guest Experience” added to this, suggesting restaurateurs adopt a model of sourcing from local suppliers to both boost the local economy and reduce carbon emissions.
Fostering Diversity and Putting People First
With social justice now central to the national conversation, how to implement a program that fostered human sustainability was also widely under discussion. Speaking at “Lost in Transformation—How to Create a Business Model for the Future of the Industry,” Andrew and Brianna Volk outlined the equitable business model at their bar, The Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, which offers employees insurance and wellness benefits, a profit-training scheme, and regular training. How do they do it?
“The honest answer is we increased our prices,” said Andrew Volk. However, as echoed throughout several panels, transparency is paramount. In their case, they’re open about their pricing, pay structure, and policies to inform patrons what the extra dollars are paying for. The Volks were joined by Mika Ammunet, who that same week opened Bar Mate in Helsinki, Finland, where he is trialing a form of “mindful hospitality” characterized by collective leadership. “When you take away the hierarchy, the usual conception is you get anarchy,” he said, “but actually you need different types of structures.”
In recent years, the drinks industry has pushed itself to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, but how much have these initiatives really moved the needle across the industry as a whole? “We’re in such an early stage,” said Kamuti Kiteme, the managing director of inclusive investment programs at Distill Ventures, during the “Is Our Focus on Diversity in Drinks Working?” panel. “It’s about trying [to be more diverse and inclusive], and on that journey there’s going to be failures and uncomfortable conversations. That’s part of the process.”
The panelists argued that lack of transparency is holding the industry’s collective efforts back, urging companies to be open about where they are in their diversity journey—even if they aren’t as far along as they’d like to be. “When people see others making mistakes, they say, ‘okay, I can build on that,’” said Jomaree Pinkard, the CEO and cofounder of Hella Cocktail Co. “There’s so little [in terms of results] we can point to, and it’s not representative of what’s happening. People aren’t transparent because they’re too scared.”
Tuan Lee, the CEO and cofounder of craft, canned cocktail brand Vervet, recommended that companies create and publish a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) dashboard in order to “know where you’re at” in the journey; Vervet’s dashboard (which Lee hopes to publish soon) tracks the diversity of its full-time employees and freelancers, as well as vendor ownership and sustainability practices.
But it’s up to the drinks industry as a whole to ensure that businesses are being held accountable to their promises. “Companies won’t be transparent if we don’t ask for transparency,” said Lia Jones, the executive director of Diversity in Food and Beverage, pointing out that many companies are willing to publicly pledge money to DEI programs, announce internal DEI initiatives, or create scholarships, but few follow up on the results of those commitments. “As a community, we need to take action [to hold the industry accountable].”
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