Aggressive Hospitality May Save America
"The climate is inhospitable, and when I can offer people an opportunity to 'do good while being bad' they take me up on it in droves," says barman Sother Teague.
Editor’s note: Communal Table, a forum for amplifying first-person voices in the food industry. Our goal is to work long term with leaders to create more humane and sustainable workplaces. We encourage restaurant and bar workers and owners to write in and share their experiences here: firstname.lastname@example.org. Have ideas about how to make the industry a safer, better, more sustainable place to work? Please share them, too. We’ll edit and post some entries to foodandwine.com.
Sother Teague is is the beverage director at New York bitters bar Amor y Amargo, co-founder of NYC bar Coup, author of I'm Just Here For The Drinks and the host of The Speakeasy on Heritage Radio Network. He developed a love of teaching while working on the TV program Good Eats, and has been featured as a cocktail expert in outlets including Esquire, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Time Out, BuzzFeed, and more. In 2018, he was honored with Wine Enthusiast's Mixologist of the Year award.
The craft sector of the hospitality industry is more politically active than ever before. This is a risk for both individuals as well as establishments because it runs the risk of alienating a large segment of their clientele. Still, fundraisers in the form of nights of charity or percentage of a particular drinks sales in the name of party affiliation or issues are becoming much more common. I am a partner in a venture called Coup that donates 100% of its profits to causes like Planned Parenthood and immigration services. Recently we threw a fundraiser for Texas senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in New York City. We’re really trying to impress upon people that it’s great to get involved in local politics, but it’s also value and importance to pay attention to national politics.
I’m not sure that my quest is entirely political in nature. Rather, I’m seeking to make the world I live in more hospitable. I’ve dedicated my entire career to the hospitality industry. As a young boy working at my dad's bar I’d lug cases of beer up from the cellar for coins to immediately plug into the stand-up arcade games we had. Missile Command and Asteroids were always my favorites. Plus, in retrospect, what a great deal it was for my dad, right?
My lifetime of service has ingrained in me a need to care for people, and by care, I mean simply treat people with respect and be gracious while I do it. I am not alone. There is a movement within the craft-driven sector of my industry to go beyond offering a service and add value by being actively, if not aggressively, hospitable. We refer to ourselves as “Hospitalitarians.” We engage in long Facebook talks regarding how each of us is being more hospitable than the other and we cite examples in an ongoing game of one-upsmanship.
And our guests are extremely receptive to the movement, especially in the politicial environment of today. Each week seems to bring with it a new outrage or a new cause to either champion or vehemently oppose. Frankly, there’s never been a time in my career where there were more "reasons" to need a drink. The climate is inhospitable, and when I can offer people an opportunity to “do good while being bad” they take me up on it in droves.
I feel that the efforts that my contemporaries and I are making to improve the quality of life in America by supporting causes that push society to be more inclusive of people who have been marginalized is an expression of the core values of hospitality. Bars and restaurants are an extension of the home. We refer to them as such; there’s the “front of house” and “the back of house.” We invite you into our homes every time we flip the shingle to say "open." We want nothing more than to make you happy and comfortable, offer you drinks, food, and conversation in a safe space. We’re not in the business of exclusion or division for any reason. In the past, the public house or pub was the gathering place of each neighborhood and a place to collect your mail, catch up with neighbors, get informed of goings on and, yes, discuss politics. Somehow over the past several years, the latter has been diminished and often discouraged—if not outright banned—as a topic of open discussion. This is a disservice to the individual and contrary to the health of the system at large.
Let’s not forget the notion that American politics are for everyone; we’re among the few places on Earth where this is true. Diminishing language such as “stick to sports” holds no place and only serves to display the ignorance of those who say it. The same can be said of any profession, which would logically lead to only politicians "sticking to politics"—leaving foxes in the henhouse without oversight. Theodore Roosevelt urged all Americans to “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.“ More and more, the people of hospitality are simply using the resources that they have to shed light on topics, funnel money to causes that matter, and support political leaders they believe in. The notion of celebrity in every field is more present than ever with the extended reach of social media. Bars and restaurants command audiences, and bartenders lead communities far outside the walls of their establishments. These communities possess a power that can be used for social good.
The causes we’re standing behind aren’t about building walls, but rather tearing them down. I think it’s because that’s how we operate our spaces. All are welcome. If you really want to get to know a person, drink and eat with them, talk to them. You’ll walk away from the table with more than just bodily nourishment but a greater connection to humanity as a whole. And if you can raise a glass with another citizen, maybe you can begin to understand their views on topics that affect us all whether or not you completely agree.