This year has been, for lack of a better description, 2 parts “what the heck”, 1 part “I’m never getting out of bed” and 1 part “I know how to bake 17 kinds of bread.” Those of us that work in the bar and restaurant industry wake up each day wondering if we have a job still. It’s hard to picture light at the end of the tunnel in between news of civil discord and spiking infection numbers from COVID. Yet, through all of this, there is a small light that lingers because I remember when I gave up school to pursue a career in hospitality. I knew I would be working for the rest of my life but that this industry was what got me up in the morning. I hate to start this on a dark note but I don’t think we can talk about what this industry is, how it is changing and why our dreams are important without first mentioning the elephant in the room.
In our industry, it’s hard to “turn off” and take a moment to yourself. It’s not for lack of wanting to rest but rather because our environments and world constantly asks of us “more, more, more.” So often that we miss the small details of our lives. I missed an opportunity to see my Uncle, who had cancer, before he passed away because I was so busy at work. I’ve missed countless other family events and times that I should have probably been taken off for my personal life and mental health. And why? Because we are challenged by the system that defines success by how much you work? If I could use my magic wand (in this case it would be a magic bar spoon, you know the ones that are unnaturally long), I would wave it and grant everyone the time they needed to just press pause. But this isn’t exactly how the majority of business owners define success, so I’ll just sit here and wave my bar spoon around anyways.
This is why the #2dreaminside campaign is so personal to me. It challenged us to pause and take a moment. During a time when we are surrounded by stress, uncertainty, and hard conversations; it asked us to remember what our dreams are. Have you ever tried to think about something positive when the world seems wrought with darkness? It isn’t easy. But when I began to think about what I would do to push through this time and then what I would do post COVID-19, I began to remember who I was. This wasn’t about making future plans and forgetting what was happening NOW, but it was a way to reconnect with my core values and remember to not forget about my health, my sanity, and my worth. For each person, this exercise produced different results. I found myself scanning Instagram under the #2dreaminside hashtag to see what others were dreaming about; it felt comforting to see a stream of smiling faces and shared experiences.
This campaign was made possible by a man who decided to chase his own pursuit of happiness. Kaveh Zamanian left behind a career as a psychologist to start his own spirits company, called Rabbit Hole; He sits at the helm as the CEO, Founder and Whiskey Maker. My favorite part of his journey is the story of how he met his wife in Chicago and fell in love with her and Bourbon at the same time. The story sweeps you up in romance and imagery of moving from the big city to Kentucky, all because you were passionate about this one thing. Zamanian explains that his love story ultimately led him down the “rabbit hole” of starting his own spirits brand, and it wasn’t necessarily an easy transition for him.
He mentions that “the most challenging part of getting started was being an outsider,” which made it difficult to get financial backing. He needed to show that Rabbit Hole was more than a dream, proving to that “it’s a project that has legs and can genuinely become the next big American Whiskey brand.” It all starts with the dream; it’s the spark that can ignite vision and passion.
Rabbit Hole thrives in the heart of Louisville, Kentucky, where the whiskey is impacted by the hot summers and the cold winters. Situated in the NuLu district, the distillery has been called the architectural icon of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Its urban design and aesthetic are barrel-inspired and feature a charred wood exoskeleton that regulates the temperature of the distillery. The building itself is made of glass and steel which makes every process of making Rabbit Hole Whiskey visible and on display. The team likes to communicate that transparency is in Rabbit Hole’s DNA and the brand’s entire process, from grain to bottle, is on display to all who enter its doors. Zamanian, himself, was heavily involved in the design and explained that he “wanted to create a sense of awe in the space and make Rabbit Hold stand out without making it stand apart.” At Rabbit Hole you can understand how they merge the heritage techniques with innovative and exclusive mash bills. The result? One of a kind expressions of American whiskey made with recipes created by Zamanian himself.
In the spirit (pun intended?) of being mindful of to the needs of our community, the #2dreaminside campaign was created to engage bartenders and contribute funds to those in need during a critical time. Zamanian is no stranger to our industry and mentions that he grew up working in bars and restaurants; it’s where he cut his teeth. “I have fond memories, dear friends in the community and a deep gratitude for the people who serve,” Zamanian states. He is certain the industry will come back stronger, and he had some words of wisdom to share about what we can do better. “…I think that we need to do better in making sure that there are opportunities for professional growth and mobility in the service industry. Too often I’ve seen complacency in the bar and restaurant business. The pandemic reminds us of the importance of cross-training and ongoing professional development in order to allow growth and the ability to pivot.” Zamanian, Rabbit Hole, and the #2dreaminside campaign reminds us to continue to grow, evolve, dream and support those around us and in our communities. Their campaign has grown to include over 1000 posts from bartenders and industry professionals all over the world and the initial donation was set to aid the members of the Cocktail Apprentice Program.
The Cocktail Apprentice Program was life-changing for me. I’ll never forget my first Tales as a Red Coat, which is a first-year apprentice. I felt like I was going to be sick from my anxiety…. the imposter syndrome kicked in and I felt that I would be too far out of my league. As I sat there fighting the urge to run into a bathroom stall and give up my lunch, my roommate for the week began texting me. She had waited for me after she landed so we could take the shuttle to the hotel together… she said she was also nervous. I met her at the baggage claim and in that instant I knew that Jen Akin and I would be forever friends, whether she liked it or not. I met the rest of my soon-to-be CAP family later that day and everything else has been a fast blur of life happening. Don’t get me wrong, I probably wanted to throw up every day that week but looking back five years later and telling myself that taking that first step and applying was one of my better life choices.
There are a lot of things the Cocktail Apprentice Program is and a lot of things it isn’t. At its core, I interpreted it to be a program that fostered leadership and mentorship. It is a network of bartenders and hospitality professionals that stretch across many cities and countries, worldwide. “Their mission is to provide an environment in which bartenders have the opportunity to develop logistics, leadership, and event management skills, which in turn foster professionalism and develops future leaders,” states Alex Smith, Director of Operations for Tales of the Cocktail Foundation. Many of us come from well-known bar programs and for one week we become 80 strangers who come together as a volunteer group.
What it isn’t is a giant party; I had to say it because I think many people view our bar community as a bunch of rag-tag party animals. I’m too old for that! Each year I return with a little less anxiety and a little less baggage. Yes, I mean baggage as in luggage. And each year, I surrender my work personality and allow myself to be taught by some of the best in our business. It’s an exercise in giving up control in order to allow for personal growth.
The CAP family I have extends across the world and back again; so many countless smiles and amazing humans have come into my life because of this program. They say you’ll have friends in every city and the network you build is priceless. I’ve watched friends in their successes and failures throughout my time as a CAP and this year was one of the hardest for many of us. It started with many of us getting overseas travel and job opportunities curbed as the virus swept through Europe and Asia. It then hit home and we began to see friends fall ill as bars and restaurants shut down.
I’m in Chicago and every day I would walk to work past boarded-up buildings that feared looting. The world seemed to be in a state of chaos and I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel. Sad? Angry? Afraid? All of the above? Even more recently, I watched a friend have his bar destroyed by the explosion in Beirut. Every hope and dream seemed so far out of reach and it almost seemed like some unknown power really wanted us all to fail. But I’ll tell you that there is nobody more resilient than our industry and I have watched as we pick each other up over and over again.
In the fashion of “dust yourself off and try again,” our community has rallied hard and fast in the wake of the pandemic. The partnership between the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation (TOTCF) and Rabbit Hole are one such type of support. TOTCF has always done a lot for our bar family. TOTCF has continued to support the growing fraternity of past apprentices by offering exclusive opportunities, including but not limited to, financial aid or scholarships and grants. This wouldn’t have been possible without support from our work colleagues, mentors, brand representatives in the field, and those that advocate fiercely for our health and mental capacity.
If we don’t support each other there will be nobody left at the end of the day to sling drinks, sell the whiskey or let you chat at them about how crappy your day was. As I watch my friends and colleagues maneuver through this year, I don’t only feel sad or at a loss, but inspired to do better and be better. I’ve watched good friends close their bars… some permanently. Yet in the wake of misfortune, they say they know we can come back stronger and improved. I’ve spent the last five months in a bit of a circular motion of “same old, day after day” but I’m fortunate to be working.
We reopened and maybe it was a blessing in disguise that we couldn’t come back as the bar I knew; we would have to look at ways to make more out of less, something we weren’t accustomed to doing. We’ve all been pivoting to stay afloat and stay relevant. I’m personally hoping that we can, as a mentor and friend said, “rise from the ashes and rebuild.”