We Need to Talk: Diversity in the Industry

Hennessy

Photo Credit: J.P. Borchardt

There’s a conversation that we in bars and nightclubs need to have that is simply not taking place. Whether we’re not having it because we don’t know where or how to start, we don’t like stepping outside of our comfort zones, it seems too difficult, we prefer the status quo, we’re lazy, or the myriad other excuses we use to avoid it, the discussion needs to be had. The topic that we have to discuss is the lack of diversity in bars and nightclubs.

A panel of four respected industry figures moderated by Jordan Bushell, Hennessy’s national ambassador, started the conversation last week, hosted by Hennessy. Consisting of Charles Hardwick, founder of drinkmärkt beverage consulting, Don Lee of Cocktail Kingdom, Lauren Mote, co-proprietor of Bittered Sling, and Maria Pribble, an independent consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the wine and spirits industry, the panel spoke about past, the present, and what we can do about the future.

Just over 20 years ago the abundance of cocktail bars as we know them today didn’t exist. Instead, the dominant category was high volume. Hiring practices were limited largely by geography. Venues located in diverse markets with progressive attitudes towards hiring were more likely to hire diverse staffs, and that was far from the norm. Mote was born and raised in Toronto, where she also attended university. Seeking more and better opportunities within our industry, Mote left Toronto for Vancouver. She resides in Vancouver today but still travels to Toronto, and she has noticed two important changes. First, Toronto seems to be changing for the better in terms of diversity within the industry. And second, the women in the industry are finally getting recognized and winning awards, a welcome change that seems to have started in Vancouver in 2012 or 2013. It's fantastic that the industry in Toronto is catching up to Vancouver, and by no means should the efforts of those creating change be diminished. But think about the fact that it's 2016 and women bartenders just starting to be recognized as equals among their male counterparts 3 to 4 years ago.

Lee will very honestly tell you that he feels he is privileged as an Asian-American male. He’s a second-generation Korean who grew up in Los Angeles and initially went into IT. When he realized his privilege, it didn’t sit well with him.

“Merely by benefiting, I was contributing to the problem,” says Lee.

That statement begs the question: Is the lack of diversity in bars and nightclubs purposeful or was it simply, until recently, not noticed? Are those who are benefiting perpetuating the issue intentionally or has their comfort level led them to become blind to the problem? The answer, of course, is that both scenarios are the reality. In 21 years, Pribble saw just one female fill an executive role, and she didn’t last long in that position. She then saw brands create “diversity teams.” Studies show that Hispanics are responding to a certain spirit? Create a team to target that demographic group. Want to return to targeting general market consumers? Diversity – and so-called diversity teams – go right back out the window.

If you were to ask hospitality industry experts today, they would likely proudly proclaim that this industry is more diverse than any other. Odds are that they’re pointing to statistics and demographic information largely referencing chain restaurants, hotel chains, and cruise lines. The reality for bars and nightclubs is that mixology and cocktail bars are largely white male dominated while nightclubs are mostly female bartender dominated.

This was never the case when Pravda was operating. The legendary Soho bar always hired for diversity. The same was and is true for The Odeon in NYC. It makes sense to assume that they went out of their way to make diversity a reality. However, that isn’t actually the case. Hardwick, who worked at both venues, explained that both Pravda and The Odeon utilized open interviews, allowing anyone seeking a job to come in and speak with managers. This approach enabled hiring managers to speak with all candidates and find out about their beliefs, personalities, qualifications, etc. It also meant that management was able to identify intangible factors and hire great candidates. While it isn’t a pleasant word, Hardwick didn’t feel like a token hire; he didn’t feel as though Pravda or The Odeon was “collecting” him to fill a demographic hiring slot. Tokenism, as the panel pointed out, is racist, which should be obvious to everyone. No one person can speak to or for every person assumed to be one type of consumer.

So how do we begin to correct the lack of diversity in bars and nightclubs? First, we start this conversation and we keep it going. Second, we look at hiring practices. If you’re not seeing a wide range of people coming through your doors seeking employment, ask yourself how you’re being viewed by the community. If certain demographics aren’t looking to work for you, it’s possible that they simply don’t feel welcomed by you. Comments made by your staff, the perception of how some customers and staff are treated compared to others, what’s posted to social media… All of these things paint the picture of your brand, so take a long, hard look at what you’re telling the public about your bar or nightclub, your staff, and yourself. We all also need to try to stay vigilant against our own built-in biases. The entire panel encourages us to police our own thinking. Hardwick in particular urges us to learn to enjoy having our expectations exploded.

This issue doesn’t fall completely on the shoulders of operators. There also needs to be a change in bias on the consumer side. The panel suggests making introductions of bartenders gracefully when necessary. Some guests don’t realize that it’s offensive to ask for the male bartender or a bartender that belongs to a different demographic group. Approaching this sensitive situation tactfully can help to correct customers and how they view the industry. However, maybe someone who is offensive just needs to be kicked out; you'll have to find balance between graciously correcting someone and ejecting them. Another way to correct bias on the consumer side is the Please Don’t Tell approach to service. At PDT, bartenders are servers and servers are bartenders. What does this communicate? That women aren’t just expected to fill server roles. The culture of PDT provides a method to curb bias.

We’re not going to correct the lack of diversity with one short conversation. This article, it isn’t going to be a magic bullet. It hasn’t even touched on everything the panel discussed. But these brilliant minds started the conversation and it’s up to the rest of us to keep it going. We look forward to discussing this further with all of you.

"You can't think of how to solve a problem like this unless someone puts it in your ear," says Mote.