Next Monday, many folks from the bartending community will descend on the Windy City for the inaugural Chicago Style Cocktail Conference. Founded by Shelby Allison (co-owner, Lost Lake), Sharon Bronstein (VP Marketing, The 86 Company), and Caitlin Laman (Beverage Director, Ace Hotel in Chicago), the organizers have created a four day event that is truly unique in it’s focus and structure.
With the tagline “equal parts drink and think,” the conference seminars and panels will focus on topics of inclusivity, sustainability and equity within the bar community. I had the chance to chat with co-founders Sharon and Caitlin to find out a little bit more about Chicago Style’s origin story.
Tell people a little bit about yourselves and how you got your start in the cocktail and bartending world.
Caitlin: I started bartending in college and as I continued to move around the country I continued to bartender because it’s a really easy way to get a job in a new city. I have lived and worked in bars all over the country when I was much younger but really got into the cocktail bar scene in San Francisco. I first studied wine when I got there and then got thrown into this bar where I found a mentor. I found a great home in the industry in San Francisco. Once I left, I traveled for a about a year. I worked in Mexico for a little bit and then moved to Chicago about a year and a half ago.
Sharon: I fell into this industry in somewhat of a roundabout way. When I graduated college, I was looking for jobs at event marketing firms or experiential agencies and I landed at Legacy Marketing Partners in Chicago. Out of pure coincidence, the client I was working with was Pernod Ricard. So through that I started meeting some really wonderful individuals like Shawn Kelly and Simon Ford. Eventually Simon left Pernod Ricard to launch The 86 Co. and a couple years after that I was able to join him for the wild adventure. In my day job, so to speak, I run marketing for The 86 Co. and Ford’s Gin and the rest of our brands. I’m from Chicago originally and through my industry friendships here, I actually met Caitlin when Trick Dog from San Francisco participated in Bar Fight Club which my company was co-presenting down in New Orlean’s at Tales of the Cocktail in 2014 [Caitlin was bartending at Trick Dog at the time]. We just kinda stayed friends since then. I met Shelby- our fellow partner and co-founder of Chicago Style- shortly after that and that’s what eventually led us together to create Chicago Style.
Tell us a little bit about Chicago Style.
Sharon: Chicago Style really started as us trying to create the conference that we all wanted to attend. We’ve been fortunate to see so many wonderful conferences in the drinks community over the last two years especially. There have been so many added to the landscape but we felt there was a gap when it came to Chicago and almost that Chicago was being underrepresented and the bar scene here wasn’t getting enough visibility. So we started to think about what we would want to do if we could come up with our own conference. This was around the same time that Speed Rack was contemplating moving their national finals from New York- where it’s been for the past six years- to Chicago. So it was kind of serendipitous for us to say ok! If we can come together and make this a reality then now’s the time to do it.
How did the three of you decide to come together to create this conference? What was the impetus and how did you conceive of it?
Caitlin: As Sharon said, we just knew each other from the industry and same with Shelby and I. The three of us were friends and I had recently moved here. We were spending some time together and talking. We had kind of thrown it against the wall and thought it would be cool if Chicago had something. Then Lynnette Marrero- who is the co-founder of Speed Rack- came out for a visit. The three of us had dinner with her and she mentioned that they were going to do Speed Rack National Finals outside of New York for the first time and were planning to bring it to Chicago. Literally at that moment we all looked at each other and we were like ok, we’ve gotta do it then! So that was really the moment where we decided we were going to actually make it into something.
With its tagline, “Equal parts think and drink,” this conference is taking on a bit of a different format than a lot of other cocktail and bartending conferences before it. Why this conference and why now?
Caitlin: It really came about naturally for us. Shelby always says that we’ve created the cocktail conference that we want to attend. The really simple fact is that we know so many amazing people in this industry that are doing awesome things and we feel like their voices are overlooked at a lot of the other cocktail conferences just based on how they have been for years. So we wanted to give space for people that we know are doing an awesome job and we’ve admired for so long to stand up and talk about their experiences.
Sharon: I would just add that we feel like now more than ever our industry is ready to have conversations about how we can change and be better as a bar and hospitality community. I think that was also a big part of what drove the content of the seminars and panels that will be a part of the inaugural Chicago Style. We want to create a jumping off point for those conversations to be had and live on outside of the conference.
Why is the industry more ready now than ever? What has laid the groundwork for these discussions to be uniquely possible at this time?
Caitlin: I think there’s been a few watershed moments, not just in our industry but in our country when you consider things like MeToo and Times up. There’s a lot more conversation around intersectionality and sustainability. I think people are having those moments of realizing that things need to change but not necessarily knowing how to start making change. Our hope is to offer some takeaways from the seminars and panels that help them with that while also having a really good time. We certainly recognize that there’s a lot to celebrate in our industry as well.
Why is it important for these discussions to happen within the hospitality industry, specifically?
Caitlin: Honestly, these discussions are important to happen anywhere right now. I think it’s important to me that it’s known that we all talk about these things as women and queer women that have worked in this industry and lived in this world- this is our experience. Part of this whole thing is sharing our experiences and making space for people to share their experiences. For us and our friends who we hang out with on a day to day basis, we have these conversations. This is our life so putting it on a bigger stage and getting more people to listen to it is really the goal here and the most important thing.
Sharon, Shelby and I always talk about how we’re really fortunate because we work in big, progressive markets where it’s not ok to ask for a photo when you receive an application from someone and you’re not forced to wear a low-cut shirt anymore as a woman. But those things still do exist in other markets so we’re trying to put this out there on a platform, as big as we can for the first year especially, so that these conversations are heard in other places that aren’t as fortunate to be as progressive as cities like Chicago.
I’ve been seeing Instagram Posts on the Chicago Style Dinner Party Series. Can you tell folks a little bit about that, how it ties into the conference and the themes you are working around?
Sharon: The premise of the Chicago Style Dinner Parties is really to create an intimate setting for meaningful conversation. All of the dinner parties will be, at most, 20 people in attendance and we’re pairing up each of the partners with a venue where either the food or beverage program is helmed by a woman, a person of colour, a queer person. And also bringing in a guest of honour to help focus the conversation on an important issue whether it be sustainability, inclusion, equity and so on. The reason why we really looked at this format for the dinner parties this year is because we feel that so often great change can start from small, meaningful conversations like these and if we can help create an environment conducive to those conversations, then hopefully people will walk away from those dinners with motivation to want to continue those conversations and create change from them.
Caitlin: The dinners have been really cool to watch take shape because the brands are essentially choosing one or two guests of honour, pairing them with the restaurant or bar and watching them develop something that they’re personally passionate about and getting really excited about it. It’s been really cool for us to see. There are 12 dinners in total.
In reviewing the panel discussions planned for the conference, a lot of them are bringing focus to intersectionality, accountability and hospitality. How do you think about accountability in the cocktail community? What does that look like?
Sharon: I think accountability in hospitality manifests itself in a lot of different ways. For one, I think amongst bartenders, it’s about calling each other out on behaviour that’s unacceptable and maybe in the past has been overlooked or let go and it’s no longer tolerable to do so. It’s also accountability when you look at the dynamic between guests and bartenders or any staff working in a venue- what’s acceptable on both sides of that equation but especially in the sense of how guests treat the employees of an establishment and the message that management sends by how they reinforce and support their teams. Creating safe spaces is something that we want to ultimately encourage both for guests as well as for staff.
Caitlin: And also acknowledging for a lot of people that this is a learning experience and that we all would like to try as best we can but it’s ok when we make mistakes and to see those and correct them and be open about them. Understanding that all of us have incredibly different experiences in this world and so the owner may not naturally empathize with the bartender or the server or the busser or the cook. Making space to hear those experiences and to try to understand them in a way that isn’t natural to you is really important.
Sharon: It’s almost like challenging the notion that the customer is always right.
Can you expand on that a bit? How can that notion of “the customer is always right” reinforce some of the problems that exist in the community?
Caitlin: Well it takes power away from staff. There are extremely grotesque examples of that and then there are just basic disrespect examples of that. This goes back again, to these markets that we’ve worked in. Great cocktail bars that have had a lot of press around them tend to have more well-behaved guests because they respect the establishment but the sports bar on the corner in a smaller town doesn’t necessarily have that so the guests may feel more entitled to treat people how they want to.
Sharon: I think the only way that we’re going to show that a career in hospitality is sustainable and has longevity to it is if we can show that it’s a safe space for people to work and that signing up to be a server does not come with an acceptance of any behaviour from the guest.
What goes into building a conference that specifically focuses on issues of inclusivity, intersectionality and accountability.
Caitlin: This year we worked really hard to create the list of panelists long before the conference was announced and we really chose people who we know and have worked with or who’s work we have admired. The moderators are really intended to shape the conference with the panelists and so we’ve given them an outline of what we have thought the seminar would be but also given them the freedom to make it what they want to and trusting that it’s going to be good because we have chosen these people because we want to hear what they have to say.
How do you go about reaching out to communities that haven’t necessarily found a space at other conferences?
Caitlin: Again, choosing the panelists that we did and encouraging them to reach out to their communities as well and make sure people know this is for everyone. We’ve made a point to work with a lot of local artists as well which is a good draw to things. We’re really excited to see everyone that comes out.
What are your goals for the conference? What would you like to see come out of it?
Caitlin: A bit of action for sure. We want to see people taking note and talking about it and trying to implement some of the things that they learn in their home bars. I know looking at the people that have bought tickets and are coming, we have a lot of bar managers and a handful of bar owners as well so we’re really hoping that people are going to be there excited to listen and learn and come away with some tools to make spaces more inclusive and learn some fun stuff about booze along the way.
How do you hope the goals will be followed up on? Will there be an opportunity for ongoing work outside of the conference?
Sharon: Probably! We’re going to get through the conference first. We’re all about baby steps right now.
In some of the interviews I’ve read, there’s already talk about next year’s conference and where you see this going in the future.
Sharon: Yeah, I think one of the more fun parts of the process for us has been seeing all the ideas that have come up even as we’ve finalized plans for this year and we’ve already have a long list going of things we’d like to do in year two if all goes well with the first round. And even if all doesn’t go well with the first round, there’s opportunity for growth. It is, at least at this point in time, very much our intention to make this an annual event.
As organizers, is there something you’re most excited about for the conference?
Caitlin: I’m most excited for the seminar days. I think we’ve put a lot into designing the space and making sure everything is set up really well so I can’t wait to see it full and listen to what people have to say during their seminars.
Sharon: On a slightly selfish note, I’m really excited for the opening party. It’s an event that I’ve loved working on in the past and I’m so happy we have an occasion to bring it back to life and breath new life into it by putting out an open call for bars interested in participating. We had over 50 bars express interest and really share incredible stories of the ways in which they are making efforts to be sustainable and actively engaged in their community. It was those entries that helped us determine the final six bars that are going to participate this year. It’s just such a fun and raucous event that I’m really excited to kick things off with it.
Those are all of my formal questions. Is there anything that you would like to add about the conference? Any questions I didn’t ask that you wish I would have?
Caitlin: Just about our two charity partners. We’re working with the James Beard Foundation’s Women in Leadership Program and then The Chicago Period Project which is a local organization here started by a Chicagoan that provides menstruation products to people in need around the city. It’s a really young and cool organization that’s doing something unique and very important so we’re really excited to support them.
Sharon: We also have plans in place this year to capture all of the panels and seminars and we’ll be sharing them post-conference on our website and elsewhere so that people that don’t have chance to be here in person can still benefit from those conversations.