3 Talented Women Share Their Bar Business Insights

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This International Women’s Day is a day to not only honor women across the globe but strive to seek gender balance throughout the world.

We had the honor and opportunity to speak with two incredibly talented and knowledgeable women to share their insights into our industry: challenges they've faced and overcome, how their careers have been nurtured, how they've guided others, how to improve operations at the management level, and more.

To the thousands and thousands of women working in this business—and the millions all around the world—thank you for your contributions!

Megan Breier

For Nightclub & Bar readers, Nightclub & Bar Show attendees, whiskey aficionados, and the bourbon-curious, Megan Breier needs no introduction...but we love her so we're going to give her one anyway. She's been featured as a Nightclub & Bar Brand Ambassador of the Month, has educated countless bar pros and guests, and hosted the wildly popular Oink & Barrel whiskey and country ham pairing event during the 2018 Nightclub & Bar Show. This year she'll not only be hosting the engaging and educational Bourbon is My Boyfriend experiential event at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show, she'll be speaking about making the most of a career in this business with Bridget Albert, national director of education for Beam Suntory, Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits, and Natalie Migliarini of Beautiful Booze.  

How did you get your start in the hospitality industry?

Well, that all depends on how far you want to go back! I actually worked throughout college at multiple restaurants as a server. My very first gig was at a local chain restaurant in Kentucky that focused on TexMex. Nothing like serving 99-cent Margaritas to the masses every Monday night!

I was definitely bitten by the hospitality bug. After college, I worked in non-profit for a few years but eventually returned to the hospitality industry. Since then, I’ve held a few different positions over the years: event manager, F&B consultant, general manager, and brand ambassador.

When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career as a brand ambassador?

Honestly, it wasn’t a role I was aware even existed when I happened to apply for Jim Beam’s Kentucky bourbon ambassador. I was at a place in my career where I was ready for my next step.

I had managed an award-winning bar and restaurant, and the company I was currently working for offered me the role of F&B director at a new property. Something told me to look around and see what was out there. When I read the job description for the ambassador role, I was completely intrigued. To have the opportunity to work for Jim Beam, teach people about bourbon, and create new programming seemed like a dream job. It took seven interviews—including one with our Master Distiller Fred Noe—and three months before I received the phone call that I got the job! When I started I was expected to only cover Kentucky. Then the bourbon boom came into full swing and I started travelling nationally. After a couple years, Beam Suntory asked if I would bring a bit of Kentucky out west and I became the west coast American whiskey ambassador. I’m a true believer that timing is everything and everything happens for a reason. I got really lucky.

What can operators and bar managers do today to help their team members achieve longevity in this career?

Take the time to know your team. It sounds simple, but proprietors so often have their heads in the numbers and operations that the personal side isn’t prioritized. If I’m being honest, I struggled with this when I operated a bar and restaurant. I had to make the conscious change in my management style, to stop my business brain and take the time for the team, because at the end of the day it doesn’t run without all those people. Once I got to know my team and what motivated them, we were able to work more efficiently, and if there was ever a challenge I knew what made that teammate tick. People will stay where a community that fosters growth and trust has been created.

I would strive to never make anyone else feel lesser than. It was a pivotal moment in my career where I realized the importance of creating a culture that invested in understanding the needs of the team in an equal and inclusive environment. We aren’t perfect—but we can work to do better. - Megan Breier

What’s one program or type of continuing education for bar team members you’re excited about and recommend?

There are some amazing programs available for folks to continue their spirits education. Bridget Albert, the national director of education for Beam Suntory at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, is going to be speaking to many of the educational opportunities during our 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show seminar on Monday, March 25 at 3:00 p.m.

I, however, would definitely recommend the Certified Spirits Specialist certification for anyone looking to be well versed in all spirit categories. It is offered by the Society of Wine Educators. I studied and took the test a few years back and felt it was a great program to up my knowledge across all categories! Additionally, I am travelling around the country teaching Jim Class with my fellow ambassador team in 2019. We will be bringing a four-hour deep dive into distillation and maturation, regulatory and sensory to six markets this year: Chicago, Charlotte, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Ohio and Texas. If you want to learn about all things American whiskey, it is an amazing experience!

Why should 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show attendees plan to check out your Bourbon is My Friend event?

Bourbon is my Boyfriend is unlike any bourbon tasting you have experienced! As we sip and savor, we'll describe each of these classics as the bourbon beau we envision. Bourbon is my Boyfriend uses a language that any bourbon lover, from the novice to the connoisseur, understands. It’s the same language we use every day to describe our best friend, lover or favorite family member.

We often forget that tasting is subjective and each individual may be sensitive to different flavor components. In fact, the way bourbon tastes to me could be entirely different than it tastes to you! It can be intimidating to speak up and tell a room of strangers that you don’t taste or smell the same flavor components.

By removing pretention from whisk(e)y tasting, Bourbon is my Boyfriend inspires guests to describe bourbon utilizing human characteristics. Through personifying the bourbons, we create a common and easily identifiable language that immediately puts guests at ease. It’s a flirty and fun tasting where bourbon might just become your bestie! But, honestly—why swipe when you can sip?

What advice do you have for bartenders looking for a long-term career to identify a venue with a positive, nurturing brand culture?

Remember that when you interview you are interviewing the company and team just as much as they are interviewing you. It needs to be a mutual fit. Ask the questions that resonate with you and don’t be shy about it. Establish your core values, what you are looking for, and find out if the company fits. I would also recommend visiting the bar on your own and chatting with the team while they are working. Ask them for their experience.

How has Beam shown support for your career?

I am extremely lucky to have found and joined the team at Beam Suntory. They are extremely supportive of my career and foster an entrepreneurial culture where I am able to thrive. I consistently come to the table with new programming and they assist in making it a reality. If I see a continuing education program in the spirits world for which I’d would like to register, they are supportive. Beam Suntory invests in their teams and it empowers us in the market. 

What challenges have you come across as a woman in this business?

There are definitely challenges and I do my best to turn them into opportunities. I knew coming into the bourbon world I would be challenged simply because I was a woman in a very male-dominated industry. I made a point to train at the distillery, ask our Master Distiller and plant manager every question I had, and work to understand the ins and outs of the product we create at our Kentucky distilleries.

I studied distillation and maturation. I worked with our scientists at the Global Innovation Center to understand the sensory influences in whiskey. I inserted myself anywhere I could to learn more and become an expert. I didn’t take “no” for an answer. I’d like to think anyone who wanted to excel at their job would do the same, but I knew I had to strive to be the best because I was a female entering this world. Today, I still get the “honey, do you even like whiskey?” or the random challenges on my knowledge. I don’t take it personally and I know I can answer any question they throw my way.

Read this: Does Your Brand Have a Culture of Can or Can't?

I will say the most influential “challenge” that came my way was in my time prior to working with Beam Suntory. I had a woman in a leadership role tell me that because I was unmarried and didn’t have children I didn’t need work-life balance. This was astonishing (and appalling) to me. I was basically told my time, my life, was valued less than my teammates’ who had a spouse or kids. I will never forget the moment when I decided that as someone in a management or leadership role, I would strive to never make anyone else feel lesser than. It was a pivotal moment in my career where I realized the importance of creating a culture that invested in understanding the needs of the team in an equal and inclusive environment. We aren’t perfect—but we can work to do better.

Who are some women in this industry you admire, and why do you admire them?

That’s a really tough question because there are so many who I admire for different reasons. There are some amazing women working at the distilleries who I’m in awe of consistently.

Jane Bowie, who created the Maker’s Mark Private Select Program, and Marianne Eaves as the Master Distiller of Castle & Key, both are innovators and trailblazers in the industry. Ivy Mix and Lynette Marrero, the co-founders of Speed Rack, the speed bartending competition for women that not only creates an amazing community of badass female bartenders but also donates all proceeds to help breast cancer education, prevention and research. I look at Ariel Neal and Alexis Brown, the women behind Causing a Stir, who saw an extreme need to empower and uplift marginalized members of the hospitality industry and I can’t help but feel inspired and hopeful. Molly Wellman owns and operates multiple bars, is a published author, and is genuinely one of the kindest people I have ever come across in the industry. Kate Gerwin has taken her experiences, from running award-winning beverage programs to being the first female to win an international bartending competition, to mentor the next generation of bartenders across the country. And the list could keep going…

Jessica Stafford

Like many in this business, brand specialist Jessica Stafford got her start while attending college. She took a job in a fine dining restaurant while finishing her degree and would take a seat at the bar after her shifts, chatting with the head bartender to unwind. Eventually, she was talked into giving bartending a shot. Stafford entered a cocktail competition four months into her career and won. She has worked for such famed venues as Rose. Rabbit. Lie.—where she was required to showcase a talent during the interview process so she played her violin—and Giada's. 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show attendees will get a deeper look into her storied career and how they can build their brand, become more creative, and remain relevant during her session titled "Brand Creativity & the Relationship to Your Bottom Line."

What drew you to bartending as a job?

Knowing how to make the cocktails, and how it fed my creative side is what interested me the most. It was a way for me to express myself through cocktails and still have that “human” connection. I found that through interacting with people I could be myself and connect in ways I never had before in different aspects of the industry, and fell in love—I had found my passion. There was a community I became a part of which included many events and travel. I realized that by pursuing my passion I could leverage this into lucrative career. 

When did you realize tending bar is more than a just a job, it’s a viable, long-term career?

My first job at a casino in Reno, when I started chatting with fellow bartenders who had committed their lives to this passion, building those connections, and talking about other avenues in the field I could pursue long after bartending as a long-term option. As I started competing in cocktail competitions I developed more networks and more lucrative positions, and really saw it as a long-term career.

Failing and failing again was the best thing that ever happened to me. - Jessica Stafford

How can a bartender tell apart operators and managers who are interested in their employees’ careers and those who are not?

I always look at the company’s ethos and if it’s aligned with who I am. In my experience, those operators who understand that you’re human and give you the tools to succeed are the ones to keep. Not everyone starts at the same level, and you have to be in a position to train your staff adequately and have the things that they need to succeed, whether its training, tools or product.

The jobs where people become loyal are those in which they can really showcase their strengths and are driven to improve their weaknesses. This will go further than just hiring bartenders and will lead to recommendations and a strong network in the community as a whole, thus growing your brand. That’s also a part of brand building, which is your ethos.

What can operators do today to strengthen their bar teams and show that they care about team members’ careers?

Give them brand training on everything that’s served behind the bar, speed training drills, and a creative environment where they can create and be part of menu building. Conduct meetings where their voices are heard. When you have meetings, have real conversations about what’s working and what’s not to progress the company further.

Hire like-minded people who believe in the same ethos as your company. Understand strengths and weakness and help where needed. If a bar team member isn’t strong on speed, provide them with more speed training. Sometimes throwing them right into the fire can help improve their skills. We’ve all been there and need some patience.

If a bartender is strong creatively, provide them the tools to be creative. Part of building a strong team is providing them with the tools to succeed and be a part of the process. They’ll feel like they’re a part of a team, become loyal, and want to learn, as well as preach the gospel of your brand.

In what ways did operators you’ve worked for show interest in your career and help you improve as a bartender?

There have been a couple operators I have worked for that supported me when I was doing cocktail competitions. They helped me source, gave me time off when needed, helped train me for competitions, and lifted me up and gave me moral support. There have also been operators who gave me the tools to express myself creatively and included me in menu building and other operational aspects.

What advice do you have for bartenders looking for a long-term career to identify a venue with a positive, nurturing brand culture?

Sometimes it’s a process, but I think you have to work in different environments to understand and respect the good places when they come along. Networking and taking heed of word-of-mouth recommendations from other bartenders can help you find the best fit for where you want to go next in your career. Find someone you admire and pick their brain.

Read this: What You Need to Look for Before You Buy a Bar

Oftentimes, I’m asked how I got to where I am. I always say I worked my butt off in many different environments in the industry until I found my niche through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Failing and failing again was the best thing that ever happened to me. “Don’t give up!” is my biggest message. If you work hard and do the best you can with what you have—and you don’t become complacent—the right people and places will come along. You just have to be open to it.  You never know who’s sitting at the other side of the bar. You never know who’s sitting by you when you’re at a bar or event. Be nice, be humble, but be hungry.

What challenges have you come across as a woman in this business?

Being a “pretty face” meant my male coworkers or other women would often judge me and think I got certain jobs based on my appearance. While this may be true in some instances in markets like Vegas and in most nightclub situations, I knew I had more to offer. Through networking and always trying to be better I was able to get some amazing jobs with great mentors. To be taken more seriously I felt I always had to work harder and be one step ahead of my male counterparts.

Men and women seem to be seen differently for the same behaviors behind the bar. Oftentimes, when a woman is a hard worker and just wants to get things done, she’s labeled “bitchy.” And if she’s friendly and nice to guests and coworkers, she’s “flirty.” Behind the bar you’re harassed way more than the male counterparts by guests, staff, etc., whether it’s men not taking you seriously or a boss or coworker who acts inappropriately. You’re “too fat” or “too skinny,” and there are those late nights closing the bar when you hope you’ll get home safely. For years, there were very few females in cocktail competitions. Recently, I’ve seen more women entering competitions. That’s something I’ve always wanted to push forward and inspire other women to rise up and do. 

Who are some women in this industry you admire, and why do you admire them?

I’ve always looked up to Mariena Mercer at the Cosmopolitan who was always so humble and so creative.  She always gave me inspiration and support when I needed it, as did Kristen Vesely. I saw how they excelled and used grace and creativity to bloom in this industry. They were supportive as females and understood where I came from. Becoming a mentor is important in this industry. I always suggest looking to people you admire and taking note of how they work hard, approach work-life balance, and live. It’s a balance of work hard, play hard.

Debora Fernandez

Passionate for Peruvian Pisco, Japanese whisky and this industry, Debora Fernandez is the bar manager for KAIYO in San Francisco. Fernandez came to the United States from Lima, Peru. Her college career brought her to San Francisco where she realized the hospitality industry was where she wanted to be. Now, you can find Fernandez behind the bar at KAIYO, a recognized destination restaurant and bar known for amazing cocktails and Nikkei, an increasingly popular fusion of Peruvian and Japanese cuisines.

How did you get your start in the hospitality business?
My first taste of hospitality happened while I was still in high school and went to work for my friend’s parents at a local Mexican restaurant, and I was awful at my job. I kept working in restaurants throughout college, thinking it was temporary, but when I finally decided that this is what I should be doing, that’s when I truly got started.

I love this journey. I’m excited to be a part of this wave in our industry. - Debora Fernandez

How would you describe your approach to cocktail menu programming?
It’s like group therapy. I get my team involved, we make a statement of intent with an ingredient or flavor profile, and we work together to get where we want or need to be. We listen to each other, motivate and call each other out when we need to. The process is exciting and exhausting, but it creates a cocktail menu where any guest can find something they will love.

The bar program and cocktails at KAIYO focus on Peruvian Pisco and Japanese whisky. What is it about those two spirits that you love so much?
I love Pisco for its versatility and call to terroir. I love Japanese whisky for its craftmanship and tradition. And despite Japanese whisky’s popularity, most of the Japanese houses are not rushing to get product out—unapologetically, so I love that. Finally, we are told no, you can’t have this, it’s not ready, you’ll have to wait. On the other hand, I love Peruvian Pisco for its variety, from conditions in terroir expressed in each bottling, to the non-aromatic and aromatic varietals, and each producer’s personal touch; there’s always so much to unpack, so many nuances to be privy to, it’s fun.

How did the operators and fellow managers at KAIYO help nurture your career?
John Park, our owner, has been an absolute inspiration. I didn’t know what I was getting into with KAIYO but watching him be relentlessly hard working and nurturing put me at ease from the beginning. I’m learning the true meaning of leadership, and a ton about business. My growth under his wing is constant.

Our Chef, Michelle Mathews, has had my back since day zero, and I’m so grateful to have her in my life—not just at work. I’ve never seen anyone work harder, push for better, and find joy out of challenging situations. I’ve never worked with a chef that I’ve had so much mutual understanding and communication with, so I feel lucky with her.

My lead bartender, Danielle Taylor, shows me so much care and support, and works so hard to maintain the program. It’s one thing to work hard for someone because it’s your job, and a whole other to have someone work hard for you because they want to do that for you. It has been the most humbling aspect of this whole journey. And all of our investors are so caring and supportive. They are such incredible pillars of support, it makes working hard easy.

I want to be acknowledged for my work ethic—my gender shouldn’t be a factor. That would be incredibly empowering, to stop adding “woman” before any accomplishment. - Debora Fernandez

How does bartending provide you with opportunities to celebrate diversity and bring people together?
Number one rule of hospitality: Everyone, no matter what, is equal. I live for that. I’ve had the honor to serve people with zero spirits knowledge to “nerding” out with self-proclaimed connoisseurs, [from] tourists visiting from another country and local folks coming in for the first time.

It’s fun to have to create individualized experiences on the spot and adjust and calibrate to each guest. Food and drink already bring people together, I’m just the liaison. Working at KAIYO has been rewarding because I also get to take people outside their comfort zones if they’ve never tried Nikkei cuisine before. We’re sharing pieces of history about cultural immersion to a variety of people in San Francisco with a staff I’m proud to say is very diverse.

What are some challenges you’ve faced as a woman in the bar business? How have you overcome those challenges?
I’ve been very lucky to have worked and continue to work with people that respect me. I’ve also worked with people that told me I couldn’t be a bartender because I wasn’t bubbly enough. Or that I would get better tips if I wore a little makeup. I’ve been too much of something and not enough of the other. I’ve had guests and colleagues dismiss me or ignore me. I would be lying if I said I didn’t let it bother me. It bothered me a lot. I learned the power of “no” and how to say, “Excuse me, I’m not done talking.”

Overcoming subtle sexism has come from growing up and being confident in my own abilities. I was very insecure when I was younger, but I was also afraid of failing, so I didn’t let myself fail. I wanted to be behind the bar, I wanted to have the good shifts, and I wanted to make the best cocktails. It wasn’t that I ignored the comments or that they didn’t affect me in some way—they ate away at my self-esteem. But I kept pushing, I kept reading, watching videos, asking questions, and I had people that did believe in me when I was starting out, so I didn’t get this far alone either. It was just the right combination of resilience and support—a combination that I rely on to this day.

What are some ways hospitality business operators can empower the women they employ?
They can learn to listen more. They can stop comparing us to one another or pitting us against each other. I don’t want to be treated differently or be hired as part of an effort to have diversity. I want to be acknowledged for my work ethic—my gender shouldn’t be a factor. That would be incredibly empowering, to stop adding “woman” before any accomplishment.

How can operators empower women guests and make them feel comfortable, safe and respected in their venues?

I find discretion and attention to body language works on an individual basis if it’s between guests. A simple check in or eye contact and offer of assistance goes a long way. Otherwise, it’s important to create a culture of social responsibility within the staff and empower them to step in or reach out when they see or hear something that isn’t right.

Who are some women in the hospitality business you admire? Why do you admire them?
Simone Mimms is a mentor through and through, and I am lucky to call her a friend. She’s developed, consulted and worked in some major projects in San Francisco and New York, but she has always lifted people up above all else. Her hospitality and attention to detail is unparalleled, she’s someone I look up to and often seek advice from.

Read this: Bar Marketing and Promotions Ideas Essential to Your Business

Keli Rivers and Karri Kariyuna are also two women I’ve been lucky to know. Both are incredible bartenders and fountains of knowledge. They don’t slow down, and they don’t stop learning and working. I don’t know how they do it, but I’m in constant awe of their drive and stamina.

What are some tools, books or other resources you use to improve yourself and the team members you oversee that you recommend to our readers?

A foam roller. Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table. Chip Conley’s Emotional Equations. And a reminder to breathe, to make time to loosen up, to remind oneself that we work in a restaurant—or bar—not in an emergency room. And, personally, I like a little bit of comedy, so I rely on funny demotivational posters and puns to get through the day.

Looking for more content like this? Register now for the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show and plan to attend "Making a Lasting Impression: Achieving Longevity in the Industry" featuring Megan Breier, Bridget Albert and Natalie Migliarini. Jessica Stafford will address branding, creativity and staying relevant during her session "Brand Creativity & the Relationship to Your Bottom Line." You also won't want to miss "Female Forward Leadership: How to Create an Active & Effective Workplace for Growth & Staffing Retention" moderated by Jayne Portnoy and featuring Anjali Kundra, Nik Kundra, Josh Loving, Kyla Moore, Laura Maddox, and Bill Norris.

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