Dan Q. Dao on the rise of civic-minded bartenders tackling the most pressing social justice issues of the day—one well-made cocktail at a time
Credit: Chicago Style is a “think-and-drink” cocktail conference educating bartenders on topics like inclusivity, consent, and self-care. (Courtesy photo)

As the Trump administration continues to resurface and grapple with difficult realities in this country, America’s hospitality community has been thrown into a spotlight it’s long avoided. Can legacy food magazines get political and take sides on issues like racial representation and environmental policy? Can chefs (and the committees who give them awards) be accountable to the #MeToo movement? Can restaurants and bars challenge cruel policies that target the immigrants who form the backbone of our establishments? In other words: Do politics now, finally, belong at the table?

It’s a work in progress, but politics are indeed finding a home at the bar. After all, bars and taverns have historically served as unique public forums for social change and even revolution.

In the past two years specifically, I’ve been proud, both as a bartender and drinks writer, to see industry leaders championing activism as an extension of the hospitality we provide on a nightly basis. From Ashtin Berry, the beverage director teaching bartenders about intersectionality, to Bobby Heugel, king of the Houston cocktail scene whose social efforts range from widespread hurricane relief to an anti-Columbus Day awareness menu, these are folks providing masterclasses on social organizing—not just for their peers, but for all Americans working to advance change in their own way.

So on the eve of the November midterm elections, I posted an impassioned plea to an industry Facebook group seeking partners to fundraise for Beto O’Rourke, the progressive Democrat with a real shot of beating out Sen. Ted Cruz in my home state of Texas. The responses were overwhelming: on October 15th, we’ll host a Bar Night for Beto at NYC’s Mother of Pearl, a beautiful space generously donated by nightlife impresario Ravi DeRossi. (You may remember his six-month, anti-Trump cocktail pop-up Coup, which donated thousands to causes “under attack by the current administration”). Bartender Sother Teague will sling cocktails made with booze donated by the women-owned, DC-based distillery Republic Restoratives; chef Hong Thaimee is serving Thai food; whiskey educator Heather Greene will pour ultra-rare bottles from her private collection.

With all profits from the evening will go towards the Beto for Senate campaign, this is grassroots fundraising at its finest.

Credit: Sother Teague, Ravi DeRossi, Max Green (Courtesy photo)

“Roosevelt instructed citizens to: ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,’” Teague says. “As a bartender in New York City, I’m in the unique position to create community, and I can use that energy to channel resources toward causes and campaigns that matter to me both locally and nationwide. This is how our system was designed to work and I’m proud to do my part.”

Credit: Shelby Allison (Courtesy photo)

But we’re hardly the only ones: my search for like-minded folks led me to Shelby Allison, co-owner of Chicago’s lauded tiki bar Lost Lake and co-founder of Chicago Style—a “think-and-drink” cocktail conference educating bartenders on topics like inclusivity, consent, and self-care. In the past few months, Allison and the Lost Lake team have been hosting fundraisers for Lauren Underwood, a progressive congressional candidate for Illinois' 14th district.

Chicago Style Founders (Caitlin Laman, Sharon Bronstein, Shelby Allison) photo credit Jackie Rivas.jpg
Credit: Chicago Style founders Caitlin Laman, Sharon Bronstein, Shelby Allison (photo: Jackie Rivas)

“[Lauren] is a progressive candidate who supports many of the issues close to my heart—universal healthcare, reducing gun violence, reproductive rights,” Allison tells me via email. “It is imperative that the voices and leadership of more young, African-American women are included when governing our country.”

Allison’s activism started on a personal level: in early 2016, Lost Lake suffered a small fire and the Chicago bartending community came together to help them rebuild, hosting pop-ups where they’d serve “shifties” (end-of-shift drinks) and donate tips. When Lost Lake reopened, Allison expanded on the idea, launching a monthly party called SHIFT-EASE, with proceeds from specially-priced drinks going towards local organizations fighting for gender, racial, and economic justice—including the Chicago Period Project, Chicago Abortion Fund, and Black Youth Project 100.

Credit: Courtesy Dan Q. Dao

“Bartenders are naturally motivated to do community work because hospitality is an industry that prides itself on making people feel welcomed, and a community-centered mindset is at the heart of everything we do,” Allison explains. “At Lost Lake, it’s important to us that we are actively supporting the communities that support us—and we recognize and celebrate the historical role bars have played as spaces where social change is organized.”

That broader community-centric notion of hospitality has also inspired Aaron Polsky of Harvard & Stone in Los Angeles, who gained national attention when he led the charge to translate widely-disseminated bar manuals into Spanish and provide ESL bar education to equalize the playing field.

In the wake of Trump’s immigration crackdown, Harvard & Stone joined Ilegal Mezcal to support the local Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles (CHIRLA), which aims to help children separated from their parents. Polsky recruited bartenders who donated time and tips, while the bar charged ticket sales and raffles to maximize contributions. As an industry veteran, Polsky says he believes in empowering immigrants and standing up for them.

“We’re in the business of helping people, and integral to that is a charitable assumption,” says Polsky. “That state of mind extends to helping outside of the bar. Rather than uncharitably assuming that people in need are lazy or are milking the system, we recognize how the system fails them and that they’re in need, despite their best efforts to have stable lives.”

Mark Schettler, general manager of New Orleans’ Bar Tonique and executive director of the non-profit Shift Change, says it’s easy for bartenders to make an impact with some effort and intention. At Bar Tonique, Schettler has hosted a number of engaging fundraisers, like a 12-hour guest bartending shift contributing to 12 different local charities, and has used the bar’s off-site permit to host a pop-up bar at the LGBT Community Center of New Orleans.

“We have access to a lot of quick, cash-in-hand money, especially when it comes to donating tips,” says Schettler, who also founded Tip Out Day and has likewise donated the tips from every guest bartending shift he’s ever worked. “There's a degree of credibility and visibility that a bar can lend to a cause. If you can throw a release party for a new spirit, or host a guest bartender, you can organize a charitable event too. Leverage the resources you have as someone with the wherewithal to plan and execute an event.”

He adds, “Our bar has been party to raising tens of thousands of dollars over the last few years. And you know what? All of our bills are paid, too. It's not hard to do.”

Beyond having access to space and booze, bartenders are distinctly positioned to organize on a grassroots level thanks to a relatively tightly-knit community—bartenders often work guest shifts in different cities and it’s not uncommon to see bartenders visiting each other on off-nights or after a shift. And with active organizations like the United States Bartenders’ Guild, and frequent brand-sponsored competitions and events, information disseminates quickly through social media and word-of-mouth.

“The bar and restaurant community mobilizes well because as hospitality professionals, we’re trained or wired to constantly organize and execute,” says BQ Nguyen, organizer of the beloved guest-bartending series Going Up. “Add civic awareness and the gamut of political issues raised in the past two years, and there’s plenty of motivation for everyone to step up and actively help.”

Credit: Going Up (photo: Gabi Porter)

In the past three-and-a-half years, Nguyen has partnered with dozens of brands, hosted hundreds of bartenders from around the world, and raised thousands for causes ranging from The Dream US (providing education for DREAMers) and RAICES Texas to the Audre Lorde Project LGBTQ center and Black Girls Rock!. On the eve of the midterm elections, Nguyen says he’ll redirect some of those efforts to raise awareness about voting, also offering to provide support for our Texas fundraiser.

A wise bartender, Gaz Regan, once told me that, as bartenders, we have the power to change the world solely through the hospitality we provide. For every guest we serve with a smile, we put out positive energy that will ripple across the lives they touch after they leave our bars. While this will always be the heart of mindful hospitality, I’m inspired by those bartenders who’ve taken things one step further—going beyond the walls of their bars and leading by example.

“We can get shit done,” Schettler says. “Being a global citizen and a force for positivity in the world isn't difficult. You just gotta show up and get to work...just like we do every time our name is on the schedule.”