What SHE Said: Women Speak Out About Our Industry

Kayla Robison is the executive chef at Nation Kitchen & Bar in Cincinnati, OH.

Women in the spirits industry are becoming more spirited and outspoken about the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. National media outlets including oh-so-fashionable Harper’s Bazaar and disruptor Fast Company have begun to take women out from behind the bar and put them on display. But all is not glossy and trendy for women day to day in the nightclub and bar world.

Like all female founders, women who choose to build their own spirits brands, open a venue, create a bar-related product, or even just climb the ladder as bartenders can face funding woes, gender biases, and work/life integration challenges. Entrepreneurship is a rocky road for anyone; is it tougher or easier for women in our industry?

This year at the Nightclub & Bar Show, I’ll be taking the stage (literally) with several of these women who will share their stories and advice for other women in the industry (and the men who work with them).

As a “pre-game warm-up,” I’m showcasing a few of them, along with others who will be at the show. For more shots of wisdom and wit, stop by the session on Monday at 11:00 AM, and be sure to connect with me on the app!


The “Founding Mothers”


Stephanie Kocher, owner of 163 Taproom

Stephanie Kocher, owner, 163 Taproom. Stephanie has operated her business for two years and has employed up to 60 people. 

“I have not been taken seriously, and disregarded at times by salesmen. Being successful is its own reward. You have to have tough skin in our line of work.”

To women starting out, she says, “Do your research on who your clients will be and stand behind your decision.”


Lydia Melton, owner of Gunter Hans

Lydia Melton, owner, Gunter Hans. Lydia funded her bar/restaurant via Kickstarter and SBA loans. As she nears four years in business, she has enjoyed an impressive 40% growth. On the panel, she will talk about how she credits technology with streamlining operations and cost savings.

“I think being a woman helped me get my loan in a very risky industry at a time when I had very little experience. On the flip side, having direct conversations with people as a woman is sometimes harder. A man can say something and it’s OK; if I say the same thing I would be labeled as a ‘bitch’ or ‘heartless.’ Overcoming stereotypes and traditional gender roles is often difficult.”


In the Back of the House? Hardly!


Kayla Robison, executive chef of Nation Kitchen & Bar

Kayla Robison is executive chef at Nation Kitchen & Bar, which is named after Temperance Movement leader Carrie Nation.

“The single biggest challenge for women in our industry is the constant need to prove ourselves worthy of the job. In my kitchen, gender has no roles. You either have the skill, creativity, expertise, and ability to handle a knife, or you don't. Unfortunately, our society doesn't always see it that way. As women, we have to straddle a fine line of encouraging teamwork and not being a pushover while having the emotional and mental strength by not showing stereotypical feminine emotions. We often come off as being ‘bitchy’ or undermining our male colleagues’ authority when expressing our thoughts and opinions. In reality, we want to be seen as chefs, not female chefs.” 

Kaya’s words of wisdom for newbies?Don't see yourself as a woman in the kitchen, see yourself as badass in the kitchen. Most importantly, make yourself heard. Whatever you have to say, always be professional, but make yourself heard.”


The Social & Fashion Influencers


Natalie Migliarini, founder of Beautiful Booze

Natalie Migliarini is a Seattle-based mixologist who combined her love of creative cocktails with her social media skills in 2013 to launch Beautiful Booze, a site that now generates more than 850K monthly impressions. She is seen as an industry tastemaker and influencer.

I think the new generation of spirits makers and marketers are understanding the old stereotypes of gender roles in terms of men drinking whiskey and women drinking frilly cocktails is now out the window with a more educated and refined consumer palate. This is pushing marketing agencies to run more marketing campaigns in an attempt to fairly market brands to a new female audience, and thus they are looking for more female influencers to work with.”


Terra Saunders, founder and CEO of Waitressville

Terra Saunders, founder and CEO of Waitressville, started her business in her apartment and grew it into a multi-million-dollar brand. Taking advantage of the “breastaurant” movement, she created custom uniforms that are stylish without being ill-fitting or unflattering – including sizes for petite and plus-size women.

On negotiating deals, she says, “Many of them [the fabric mills and manufacturers, which are 95% male-owned] are used to dealing with men when negotiating million-dollar contracts so I’ve definitely gotten the condescending attitude that they’d prefer to be dealing with a man. I enjoy the opportunity to turn those situations around. If you’re professional, honest and kind, you might not change the person who’s treating you badly, but you’ll usually get the results you want.”

Terra also stresses the operations and cost-management aspects of launching/running a brand. “Work on the processes of each part of the service or product, from creation to sale to delivery. If your processes are in order, it will be easy to scale it when your business blows up big. Keep your expenses low! I can't say it enough: keeping as much money and cash flow into the business for the first few years is so crucial. I have a friend who is having some awesome success in the early days of her business and I see her spending precious profits on handbags and a luxury car. I so desperately want to be the angel on her shoulder telling her, ‘You could earn enough to by 10 BMWs in 2 years if you would put that money right back into the business.’ Or, ‘Times will not always be this great. Businesses ebb and flow. Save that cash for when it's ebbing.’ I learned a lot of these lessons the hard way, but I am grateful that I learned them eventually. Even though Waitressville is experiencing amazing success, you can still find my 11-year-old car in the parking lot (and much more money in my bank account).


The Future “Industry Angel?”


Kjersten Merila, founder of Her Spirit Vodka

Kjersten Merila, founder of Her Spirit Vodka, is at the early stages of her spirits journey. Founded in 2016 (and hitting the shelves in 2017), her vodka brand has a twist (and we’re not talking just lemon). 50% of her net profits will go towards supporting women-owned businesses (within the nightclub and bar industry).

She admits to having a lot to learn and this will be Kjersten’s first time at the Show. Where does she find her inspiration? “I met Marion Dauner, General Sales Manager for Vinocopia in Minnesota, who told me a couple of stories about herself. She was one of the first women in liquor distribution in the state of Minnesota. This was back in the early ‘80s when it was unheard of for a woman to be selling booze to a male liquor store owner. She told me a personal story of when her and her husband were signing for a mortgage. She had to sign a document stating that if she ever got pregnant she'd continue working outside of the home. It reminded me that we have come a long way a short amount of time, but my oh my, we do have a long way to go. Marion inspired me to keep this crazy train going and reinforced how very meaningful the mission of Her Spirit is.”

To Be Continued…

A few messages that seem to flow consistently throughout my conversations with female founders is that we must all:

  • find our voices and be confident with our decisions;
  • know our numbers and plan for tough times;
  • utilize technology to streamline operations and improve marketing;
  • stay the course, even in the face of discrimination and obstacles;
  • find mentors and serve as mentors!

And remember, stop by on Monday for more stories, insights and inspiration! You’ll have a chance to share your story too!

Suggested Articles

Research from the latest National Restaurant Association and Yelp Show the Latest Rate in Closures

Six-month sales, education and networking virtual event series offers a brand-new approach for the industry to connect with owners, operators and supp

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today that at the end of the month, indoor dining will be returning to New York City after almost six months of being