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The Spirits of Hospitality in Crisis
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The Spirits of Hospitality in Crisis

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the alcohol industry leverages its creativity to care for workers and communities.

In the days before California’s bars and restaurants closed in response to the new coronavirus, business at Paper Plane, a typically busy craft cocktail bar in downtown San Jose, was already slow. Mary Palac, a bartender of over ten years, says her team could feel that closure was imminent; meanwhile, her hands were raw from washing them every time she touched a credit card. “We come into contact with so many people, even then it felt wrong,” she says. Santa Clara County, where Paper Plane is based, was among the early counties hit in California by the pandemic.

So when Paper Plane’s ownership shut its doors indefinitely, Palac says there was a small bit of relief that they’d be able to protect themselves and their families from the illness, “but it was scary because suddenly we lost our livelihoods.” The shutdown also means a temporary pause in a career that she loves in a workplace where her team feels like family. For now, most of her co-workers are at home and have filed for unemployment. 

With the shuttering of bars and restaurants in states and major cities across the country, millions of workers and owners in the beverage industry are facing the same situation as Palac. While many establishments, including taprooms and liquor stores, have pivoted their business models to offer take-out and delivery, they’re working with skeleton crews to try and supplement a major source of revenue. The closures have a domino effect: an entire supply chain of distillers, brewers, importers, distributors, vendors and consultants will now be impacted for the long haul by limited sales opportunities. 

But almost immediately following the first state-directed closures, the alcohol industry began a rapid and organized response to the crisis.

Spago, Beverly Hills

“It’s been inspiring to see the alcohol industry as a whole rise up and work to create solutions for our extended family in hospitality professions,” says Adrian Parker, Global Vice President of Marketing for Patrón Tequila, which pledged $1,000,000 in funds to support non-profit partners of the hospitality industry, and is rolling out a market-to-market strategy to provide anything from financial assistance to meals for bars and bartenders. Patrón is one of the many liquor companies that combined have donated millions of dollars to relief funds for hospitality workers, like the United States Bartender Guild, which went from providing emergency funding to victims of the Nashville tornado in early March, to vetting an influx of applications from laid-off workers hoping to receive grants.

Many of the relief initiatives have been made by and for industry professionals. Virtual happy hours encouraging drinkers to tip bartenders went viral. In Los Angeles, a group of bar consultants began providing meal kits for undocumented back-of-house workers. A website sharing industry professionals’ Venmos by city was built overnight and has since spread to eighty cities. Industry Facebook groups have sprung up, with members offering help with unemployment, rent negotiations, and of course, memes to lighten the mood. Meanwhile, distilleries across the country—like St. George Spirits, Oakland Spirit Company, and St. Agrestis in Brooklyn—shifted their operations to produce and donate hand sanitizer to their communities. All of this materialized in a week’s time. 

“The industry has worked on margins that are paper-thin for so long, we did not have the opportunity to be lackadaisical,” says Jackie Summers, owner of the Sorel liqueur, public speaker, and food writer based in New York City. Dani & Jackie’s Virtual Happy Hour offers Zoom cocktail sessions with bartenders from around the country, attended by forty to sixty people seeking the social experience they would find at a bar. Since launching on March 16, there are four hundred bartenders lined up with brand sponsorship running through April, and the average bartender making $250 per shift. “If it means someone can buy groceries, and that’s all we can do, then we did something,” Summers says. Palac was one of the first bartenders to get on screen, and earned $400, which she then distributed to her co-workers. 

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Palac is also the co-founder and president of the USBG Silicon Valley Chapter and the western regional co-chair for Tales of the Cocktail, a global cocktail conference and industry family reunion. Networks may have been able to spring up so quickly across the country due to the circuit industry professionals travel through including regional cocktail weeks, brand-sponsored trips, trade shows, and events like Tales of the Cocktail. 

“In the span of a couple of days, I was added to nearly a dozen Facebook groups,” says Palac, who was already in a number of industry networks. “Because we were already connected as acquaintances and professionals through all the gatherings, it was very easy to be able to mobilize.” 

Palac is volunteering as one of the city administrators for serviceindustry.tips, a website where at-home drinkers can click to randomize the Venmo accounts of service industry professionals near them and donate with each drink. The site was inspired when Jen Gregory, a real estate agent, beverage consultant, and twenty-five-year industry veteran in Chattanooga, Tennessee, made a call out on Facebook for service industry friends to post their Venmo handles if they needed support. Donald Sayers, a local web developer, knew Gregory through the Chattanooga Beverage Alliance, and after seeing the post pulled in other developers to help build the site in a day. Over fifty thousand people have clicked to tip. Out-of-work volunteer service workers have recruited each other to function as administrators in each city. 

While Zoom sessions or web editing is a pivot from handing an old fashioned across the bar, hospitality workers have always been in the business of providing for others. “Bartenders live to serve other people, so when we are forced not to, we are now serving each other,” says Palac.

In Los Angeles, that philosophy has motivated Va’La Hospitality to transform their headquarters into a hub for undocumented back-of-house workers to pick up free meal kits. After the shut-down, beverage consultants Aaron Melendrez, Damian Diaz and Othón Nolasco immediatley began to worry about the undocumented staff working as prep and line cooks, dishwashers and porters across Los Angeles. “Undocumented workers don’t qualify for unemployment and aren’t eligible for a single dollar of the federal government bailout funds,” says Nolasco. They pivoted from their consulting gigs and began a non-profit, No Us Without You, which so far has fed seventy-six families per week fueled by individual monetary donations, local chefs, and grocery stores pitching in. 

Across the industry, businesses are being adapted to be of service to local communities. “We were ahead of the curve on flattening the curve,” says Michael Pierce, co-founder of Oakland Spirit Company. The boutique distillery’s high-proof brandy was one of the only California spirits on the market with a high enough proof to meet CDC guidelines to function as hand sanitizer. By the time Pierce had tinkered away at shifting it to consumer product, cleverly dubbed “hand sanity,” and found a new recipe that could scale, he received a desperate email from the Oakland Fire Department for sanitizer. He’s since made deliveries to unsheltered communities and Oakland’s Highland Hospital as well. 

“It’s people who are truly in harm’s way that we want to get sanitizer to,” says Lance Winters, head distiller of St. George Spirits, which has been producing sanitizer for first responders and shelters catering to victims of domestic violence. The World War II airplane hangar on the island of Alameda in the San Francisco Bay is now nearly empty with most of the production crew sent home. With over three decades in business, St. George Spirits is better prepared than many others to weather a storm—Winters has stopped paying himself but his staff has remained on full salary. Still, he projects a revenue hit of twenty-five percent from the loss of restaurant and bar sales if the shutdown ends in thirty days. “We live and die by on-premise sales, and right now we’re dying by them,” he says. 

While the precarious financial situation facing industry workers inspired an urgent response to the pandemic, the reasons why and how a group was able to mobilize wide community support so swiftly illustrates important—and perhaps overlooked—qualities of the industry and its culture. The business thrives on serving people, on creativity and unconventionality, and is made by the hard work of those who play important roles in shaping our cities. 

With the length of the shutdown and the amount of forthcoming government support uncertain, the path ahead for most businesses in the industry is foggy. But in the midst of the crisis, many industry workers are at least clear on one thing. “Our view of the hospitality industry is simple,” says Nolasco. “We take care of our own.”

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