Industry Issues

The Drinks Industry Has an Ageism Problem

What it’s like to get older in the drinks industry, and how to deal with the discrimination that comes with it

The Drinks Industry Has an Ageism Problem
Photo credit: iStock.

Paula Lukas, 55, was set to be the bar manager with her pick of shifts at a new Manhattan restaurant when the incoming general manager restricted her to Tuesdays and Thursdays. “We want the under-30 crowd,” she recalls him saying. “I don’t think you’ll attract it, and I don’t know if you can handle it.” Lukas has more than 30 years of experience. She garnered glowing press at Manhattan’s recently closed Nur. She also knew her rights—She responded that such scheduling was illegal, but it was no use. Now, she’s looking for another full-time job.

Aubrey Slater, 46, was the general manager and beverage director for three of Ravi DeRossi’s bars when COVID-19 shuttered the establishments. After interviewing with a different bar owner in Harlem, she was told that the owner wanted someone younger. “She was a middle-aged woman and LGBT like me,” says Slater. “You’d think that with an elevated craft cocktail program, they’d want the experience I bring. But they were like, ‘You’re too old.’” 

Dave Herman was 41 with nearly a decade in the drinks industry when he interviewed for a sales rep job he didn’t get. His would-be manager said he wouldn’t be comfortable overseeing someone who is older and has a similar level of experience. Then a friend put Herman up for a different gig. “Her boss said, ‘For the price of someone who’s been around that long, we could hire two younger people who’d make the scene and have great social media,’” Herman recalls. “‘They don’t know what they’re doing, but we could make it entry-level, not management.’”

It’s the same all over the drinks industry as experienced professionals are pushed aside. The pattern mirrors a larger trend: In 2020, 78 percent of U.S. workers between the ages of 40 and 65 witnessed or suffered age discrimination, according to AARP. In the drinks industry, the problem is exacerbated by a culture of youth and an economy engined by tips-based pay and job insecurity. But with unfilled hospitality positions hovering over 10 percent, shouldn’t we dismantle seasoned workers’ barriers to steady employment? Doesn’t the drinks world benefit from expert hands? 

At 58 and a drinks writer myself, I find these questions both personal and urgent. Reaching out on social media, I also found that I wasn’t alone in my thinking. I heard from dozens of spirits pros who’ve experienced age discrimination, and all had something to say about why it happens and what we should do about it. 

Why Hire Older?

Let’s start with credit due. There are benefits to hiring experienced pros. For one thing, they’re mentors. “There’s a lineage,” says Slater. “I trained under Dale DeGroff. Others trained under Sasha Petraske, Jim Meehan, Alex Day. People who learned from these legends are in their mid-40s. If you’re not hiring people my age, you’re not reaping the benefit of generational knowledge.” 

With such knowledge comes sales. “Guests look to me because I have more stories. I know the products and can sell them,” says Tim Baer, 54, a bartender at Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen in Las Vegas. “Older bartenders like me inspire guests.” 

That’s true no matter how old guests are, says Lukas: “I worked on [Manhattan’s] Lower East Side with a younger clientele. Guys would say, ‘I want to learn about Scotch. What can you suggest?’ I never felt discriminated against by clientele.”

Experience also helps with problem solving. “I’m great at reading situations because I’ve seen a lot of things. I know health department and ABC rules. I know what they’re looking for when they come in,” says Baer. 

At 42, Joshua Madrid is already considered old in the bar world. “But there’s a positive side to getting older,” says Madrid, who works at Portland, Oregon’s Multnomah Whiskey Library. He outlines the soft skills gained through “a history on this earth dealing with other people and their emotions,” including guest relations, teamwork, and a stronger sense of self. “You know your skills and are more confident. You’ve tried things and know what failed and didn’t.” 

“People who’ve been doing this for decades have a lot to teach a younger generation,” says Chattanooga Beverage Alliance president Jen Gregory, who had organized a panel on ageism for the 2020 Tales of the Cocktail conference before it was canceled. 

Angie Jackson, Tim Baer, Aubrey K. Slater
From left to right: Angie Jackson (photo by Fran Dwight), Tim Baer (photo courtesy of Gordon Ramsey’s Hells Kitchen), and Aubrey K. Slater (photo courtesy of Aubrey K. Slater).

Discriminatory Hiring

Despite these clear advantages, “as an industry, the assumption is, it’s a young person’s game,” says Gregory. The median age of bar and restaurant workers is under 29. That’s a problem in our aging society. “A lot of employers do not think of older workers when they’re hiring, yet they’re struggling with hiring, so people are being left out of work, and employers are short of employees,” says Barbara Fritzsche, Ph.D., a University of Central Florida professor of psychology specializing in work and aging.  

Baer was 38 and had been bartending for 17 years when he started looking for work in Las Vegas. It took three years to land a job. “Down at the pool they’re not going to hire me. I’m excluded from nightclubs. They don’t hire anyone over 29,” he says. “So it shrinks the jobs available.” 

In theory, such practices shouldn’t exist. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects workers and applicants aged 40 and over from age-based discrimination in all aspects of employment. “Since Congress passed the ADEA in 1967, explicit age limits on hiring have largely vanished,” says Daniel Kohrman, the senior attorney for the AARP Foundation. “However, age discrimination in the workplace is still prevalent.”

Employers use surreptitious tactics to weed out older applicants. “You see ads that say ‘fun,’ which means young,” says Lukas. “I interviewed at a place that had ‘year of graduation from high school’ on its application.” Another employer wondered where she worked in the 1990s. “You’re trying to ask my age without asking my age,” adds Lukas.

Most employers get away with it. “Older workers have the right to pursue a claim if they feel they are a victim of age discrimination,” says Kohrman. “However, it’s a hard case to bring, and it can be emotionally and financially draining.”

Slater’s age-based rejection came over Facebook Messenger. “Colleagues said, ‘You could sue. It’s documented,’” she recalls. “It wasn’t worth the headache.”  

Culture of Youth

When they do get work, older pros find that hazing reinforces a culture of youth. “In my mid-30s, I started to get jokes about being older and asked whether I was able to do things, as if I was fragile,” says Madrid. He was working at a beer bar, where the manager modeled ageism. “You’re like a dad,” he told Madrid. “We don’t need dads on weekends. That’s business, bro.” 

Even in establishments that project seriousness, ageism occurs. In her mid-30s, Adrienne Desire Stoner was the oldest staffer at a Chicago craft cocktail den. “Everyone teased me,” she says. “If I tried to rally the group to stay focused, I would get thrown under the bus for being old and cranky.” 

Such harassment would be actionable if it affected Stoner’s ability to do her job and management knew of and didn’t stop it. “If the employer had an internal complaint procedure and the employee failed to use it, their claim may fail,” says Kohrman. Unless the bar or restaurant is part of a larger group with an HR department, there might be no established system of reporting. 

Eric Scott, Lissa Brennan, Daniel Korhman
From left to right: Eric Scott (photo by Tess Smith Photography), Lissa Brennan (photo courtesy of Con Alma), and Daniel Korhman (photo courtesy of AARP Foundation).

For bartenders moving on in their personal lives—starting families, caring for elderly parents—failure to socialize can signal a lack of fit. Meryll Cawn, 46, works at San Francisco’s Hi-Lo Club, known for its seasoned staff. But the ageism she previously experienced sometimes stemmed from her personal preferences. “I don’t want to drink until 5:30 in the morning,” she says. “There are places where if they’re choosing between you and somebody else, that matters.” 

There’s another function of the drinks industry’s youth culture: It supports an economy where profits are made on the backs of underpaid young people. “There are brand jobs I didn’t get because, at my age, you’re not going to want to dedicate your entire life to the brand,” says Cawn. “They know they can hire somebody who will work longer hours and punish themselves.”

Brands weigh the expertise of someone older and more expensive against the savings they garner from greener, cheaper hires. Dave Herman, now 47, moved to Durham, North Carolina, because the sales and management jobs he was offered in New York were paying $50,000. “Who could afford that?” he asks. “It’s either kids living in crowded, little apartments, or those not worried about their income. I was making that in the mid-1990s, and I struggled to live on it then. It reflects on the state of the economy and industry.”

Age Bias in Marketing and Media

Marketing and media reinforce the culture of youth. “Instead of going, ‘Here’s our new hot star killing it,’ what about a person who’s been doing this [for] 30 years and what they’ve learned? Organizations and publications should celebrate that,” says Gregory.

Rather, they magnify the larger culture’s ageism. “Age ideas are universal,” says Dr. Fritzsche. “We value youth because it’s hard to accept our own mortality. So we want to retain young people, and move old people out.”

At one restaurant, Baer was asked to lend his uniform to a production crew so a young actor could play him in a commercial. “They used my name and badge, and I sat in the back room,” he recalls. “They wanted it to look like younger people having fun, and they were willing to do that to me to achieve it. There’s an impression that society gives that older people don’t have value.”

Even where older pros are valued, their worth doesn’t translate to the media. Miami-based PR agent Annette Malkin represents Don Q Rum, where maestra ronera Silvia Santiago and master distiller Liza Cordero have been with the company for 50 and 30 years, respectively. Though both women “have great stories to share,” says Malkin, “I have experienced ageist discrimination when pitching them. High-profile outlets such as InStyle, Forbes, and Refinery 29 have passed on them because of their ‘grey hairs.’”

Thirsty CEO Tara Fougner was tapped in 2021 to be part of Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40. But Fougner was 41 and ineligible. “Inclusion on such lists can help small business owners garner support and potential investment,” says Fougner. “To have been told that your body of work is deserving of recognition, but your physical body is no longer worthy, destroyed me.”

In response to criticism, Wine Enthusiast is rebranding the franchise as the Future 40 this year. “Age will not be discussed,” says president and publisher Jacki Strum. “We’re excited to celebrate the people who might not have gotten their start in the drinks industry until after they turned 40 for all sorts of reasons, including systemic inequities.”

This is one acknowledgement that age diversity is part of equity and inclusivity. Still, “Ageism is not at the same level of awareness as racism and sexism,” says Fritzsche. “It is more accepted. We’re living longer, we haven’t saved enough for retirement, and nobody needs to be idle for 30 years, but we haven’t come along with our attitude.”

Aging and Intersectionality

There’s certainly a level of privilege that comes with being an older man in the drinks industry. “I have lived the life of a straight, cis, white man, so I don’t like to complain because any stumbling blocks I’ve had, I’ve also had the benefit of fitting all those ‘natural assumed responsibility’ stereotypes,” says Herman. 

Eric Scott, the beverage director and a partner at Cleveland’s Thyme X Table, had a similar experience when he was new to bartending in his late 30s. “[Though I was new,] I was seen as the wise, experienced man,” he says. 

Even though this may afford bartenders, for instance, additional opportunities, it can be  a double-edged sword. Frederic Yarm, 50, a bartender at Boston’s Drink, started in service at 41. At previous establishments, “there [was] always talk of me becoming manager,” he says. “But they want me to step off the bar.” Such offers demand increased responsibility and hours, but they come with decreased income and visibility. 

Women with Yarm’s age and experience, however, might not even get such an offer. A 2015 study indicates that age discrimination in hiring is especially serious for older women. Fritzsche’s research corroborates these findings: “You hear a lot of women say, ‘I had to get plastic surgery so I could get a job.’”

When she got her first brand position, Doommersive cofounder Chockie Tom, 37, was urged by another ambassador to use Botox. VodkaGirl blogger Nicole Torres-Cooke started in-store promotional work at 50, only to be turned down for positions that remained unfilled. You had to be “young and cute,” she says. She established herself by being more reliable and knowledgeable than her younger peers. But the uniforms are still a problem. “They’re a size two or four. Maybe 20 years ago I could fit.”

Joshua Madrid, Lynn House, Tara Fougner
From left to right: Joshua Madrid (photo by Jordan Hughes), Lynn House (photo by Chris Humphies), and Tara Fougner (photo courtesy of Thirsty).

Despite having years of beverage experience, “I still feel pressure to look a certain way,” says Lynn House, 54, who has been promoted several times to become the national spirits specialist and portfolio mixologist at Kentucky-based Heaven Hill Brands. “I color my hair and make sure I’m impeccably dressed and made up, even if it’s a Zoom call, because women get judged so much on their appearance, let alone when we’re older.”

For House, who is Black, “aging has compounded the race and gender stuff. When I started, there were not many women on the craft side, let alone people of color. Then, when I started running programs, I was in my 40s but couldn’t tell anybody. I had to break down doors because I’m a woman and Black, and now I wasn’t the hot little bartender anymore.” 

“Every woman knows they will age out of being relevant in the bar scene,” adds Stoner. She left for the supplier side of the industry seven years ago. Nearing 40, she feels in limbo between “two versions of myself,” one “young and fresh” for when she’s selling at bars, the other older and “less colorful [to] fit in” at male-dominated distributors. “When women are young, we’re considered too inexperienced, and if we’re old, we’re dismissed,” she says. “We’re either invisible or an annoyance.”

If a woman in the drinks industry were to sue for the double insult of gender- and age-based bias, there’s precedence. Kohrman cites a 2020 lawsuit against Colorado’s Black Hawk Casino in which eight older women brought a “sex-plus-age” claim under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act alleging they were disfavored compared to older male hospitality workers. They lost for lack of evidence, but the court said they had a legitimate legal theory. 

Making it Work for Older Staff

How can the industry accommodate older workers and thus protect itself from understaffing, lawsuits, and the lost profits that come with having only young, inexperienced labor? “Hiring practices need to shift,” says Stoner. “We need open, non-partial job postings. We have to stop nepotism and go beyond our own circle to find new talent.” That includes giving someone older a shot.

Karen Hoskin, the owner of Colorado-based Montanya Distillers, says the industry must drop “the concept of this not being a real job.” Her restaurant staff gets two weeks’ paid leave each off-season and $17 to $33 an hour before tips. “These are career folks working full-time with benefits,” she says. “Restaurants say they can’t afford that, but they don’t calculate the cost of turnover and training.” Hoskin’s last call is at 9 pm, and she discourages drinking on the job. “If we want to retain older people, we have to evolve into a healthier environment.” 

Jen Gregory, Karen Hoskin, Nicole Cooke
From left to right: Jen Gregory (photo courtey of Our Ampersand Photography), Karen Hoskin of Montanya Distillers (photo by Nathan Bilow), and Nicole Torres-Cooke (photo by Nicole Torres-Cooke).

For places with later hours, “the industry needs to look at shift sharing and tipping equity,” says House. “If you’re older, you can take lunch shifts but still make the money others make at night.” For salaried positions, Fritzsche suggests flex work and age-inclusive packages that would allow younger workers to choose tuition assistance, for instance, and older ones to select elder-care benefits.

Design choices can make the job easier on aging bodies. At the Hi-Lo Bar, the floors are “extra-cushiony,” says Cawn, and everything is within arm’s reach. “It minimizes the times you move, makes you more efficient, and hurts less,” she says. The owners invested in a chip-ice machine so staff doesn’t tax elbows and wrists shaking with bigger cubes. 

Making It Work for Yourself

Cawn has also learned to minimize shaking and stirring altogether. “Ice melts, so you can work with time,” she says. “I leave it for a bit. I get the same dilution as 25-year-old guys who’re shaking.” In other words, part of aging successfully is working smarter. “Wear support stockings. Wear comfortable shoes. Get massages and reflexology,” says Lukas.

If a job is too physically demanding, find another gig. Lissa Brennan, who works at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Con Alma, is over 40 and a COVID long-hauler. “There’s no way I could do a 14-hour shift anymore,” she says, “so I’ve been doing their social media, publicity, and promotion.”

Slater left bartending to co-own the moonshine brand Saint Luna. “I don’t know a lot of trans women who have reached my level of notoriety, but my body was falling apart, and I was thinking about job security,” she says. “It’s more appropriate for me to be in a position of leadership and not just shaking tins.”

“Owning your worth,” says House, “is really important.” So is continuing to grow. Co-author of Drink the Wild and founder of Elixir House consulting, Angie Jackson, 55, moved from Chicago back to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she found her niche “educating the consumer and young bartenders in a craft where they otherwise don’t have any education programs.” When she “sits down and engages” with younger peers, she learns from them in turn, which helps her stay relevant. 

Finally, in an industry with few guarantees of steady income, figure out your finances. “Buy real estate,” suggests Brennan. “I own my house. If I didn’t, I don’t know where I’d be. What rented for $500 a few years ago is going for $2,000 now, and incomes haven’t kept up.”

A Brighter Future

If you’ve experienced ageism, keep emails and any other documentation that can help prove it. Older workers have won in court. In 2017, Ruby Tuesday paid $45,000 to a single plaintiff, and Darden Restaurants shelled out $2.8 million in a class-action age suit the following year. Still, median food and beverage pay is only $24,130, and the ADEA only permits recovery of lost wages, not damages. Consider negotiating instead, Kohrman suggests. “Research shows employers are inclined to settle out of court in cases where employees have solid evidence of age bias.”

 And take heart that the drinks world is changing. “There’s been a culture shift,” says Tom. “Head shots were a thing before people started pushing back. Younger people are more willing to speak out. They have the vocabulary to explain what’s wrong with it.”

Fougner sees age as the next frontier of diversity and inclusion: “We’re starting to chip away. We’re starting to listen. Ageism does exist. We had all these things we needed to discuss first, but it is time that we crack this open because we will not receive equity in this industry until we admit it.”

Dispatch

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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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