Here’s How to Make the Other Side of the Bar Accessible to Everyone

There has never been a better time for those of us who love cocktails. Consumers are more educated than ever before. Industry professionals are redefining the “drinking” experience with craft cocktails that are more similar to the culinary creations of Michelin-star chefs than to your dad’s glass of scotch. From a workforce perspective opportunities abound — individuals from diverse backgrounds have risen to national prominence, and over the next 10 years bartending as a profession is projected to grow 10 percent (faster than the national 7 percent average). In many ways bartending is a distillation of the American Dream — with a positive attitude, hard work and a little bit of luck anyone can rise to the top.

But some may have to work a bit harder than others. Research that Tales of the Cocktail just released in anticipation of this summer’s festival found that despite major strides made by the industry towards equal opportunity, significant barriers remain. Although women represent almost 60 percent of the industry, they are underrepresented in the most lucrative and highest profile positions. For racial and ethnic minorities, high rates of employment in the restaurant industry as a whole have not translated to front of house positions such as bartending, suggesting systemic barriers to mobility within the industry.

So what can be done? For consumers, considering your own implicit biases and treating workers in the hospitality industry with a base level of respect is a great start. On a policy level, many have written about how minimum wage laws being applied to tipped employees can help reduce the wage gap on top of lowering poverty levels for the industry as a whole. But what about on an individual establishment level? From conversations with industry leaders I have gleaned a few ways that business owners, specifically bar and restaurant owners, can build work environments that provide equal opportunities to workers from diverse backgrounds:

  1. Proactively build an inclusive hiring process
    As mentioned above, people of color are under-represented as bartenders compared to the overall population. This suggests that the largest barrier may not be discrimination of bartenders already working, but rather inequality around who knows about, applies for, and secures those jobs in the first place. For bar owners building a diverse staff may require going outside of the personal networks of current staff or customers and seeking out communities different than your own to promote job openings.
  2. Provide training opportunities and multiple tracks
    There are a number of different entry-level positions within the bartending industry, and many have a certain profile. For example, bar-backs are typically male, while cocktail servers tend to be female. Hispanics, for example, are a disproportionately high percentage of dishwashers. Proprietors and owners can work to promote from multiple positions within the bar, rather than exclusively the “bar-back to bartender” pathway that has become customary.
  3. Enforce zero-tolerance policy for harassment from customers
    A phrase commonly heard in the hospitality industry is that the “customer is always right.” But this courtesy need not be afforded to individuals who violate social contracts around mutual respect. A 2013 study by ROC United found that women in the restaurant industry report sexual harassment at a rate five times that of the general female workforce. Employers must crack down on sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination by sticking up for their employees and establishing clear boundaries. Not only will this lead to a more equitable workplace, but it likely will lead to higher employee retention.
  4. Clearly establish a code of conduct
    Workplace discrimination can come from many different places, and one of them is from fellow staff members. Draft a code of conduct that clearly outlines standards for how employees should treat one another. Have staff members sign it, and maybe even post it on the wall in the back of house. This will not only set a precedent, but can be referred to later if necessary.

Our research also found that disagreement exists among those within the industry regarding the severity and root of these problems– approximately 65 percent of women believe that significant gender barriers exist for those starting bartending careers, while only 36 percent of men share the same sentiment. This suggests that more conversations are in order; before we can fully address barriers to access we must gain consensus around whether they exist at all. And when 20,000+ industry professionals and cocktail enthusiasts descend on New Orleans for a week of education, celebration and chances to build lasting connections it is my hope that we will do just that.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.

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