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TOTC’s Tuennerman: Role models must take lead on difficult topics

The development of the on-trade has propelled many into the spotlight. As Tales of the Cocktail’s Diversity Council takes shape, The Spirits Business explores the role of the role model with Ann Tuennerman.

Ann Tuennerman, co-founder of Tales of the Cocktail

*This article was originally published in the May 2017 edition of The Spirits Business

2002 was the year Brazil won the FIFA World Cup, Spider­Man and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones ruled the box office and Nelly topped the charts. Paul McCartney tied the knot with Heather Mills and the euro entered circulation. It was also the year that Tales of the Cocktail was founded.

What started as a small promotion of a cocktail walking tour in New Orleans has grown into the world’s largest on-­trade event, catapulting co­-founder Ann Tuennerman into the spotlight. A NOLA native, Tuennerman seems genuinely taken aback by the longevity and growth of the event, which sees thousands of bartenders, brand reps and other on­trade professionals gather in the city each July for a programme of seminars, tastings and, of course, parties.

“It’s pretty amazing that it’s our 15th anniversary,” she says when we talk on the phone. The first Tales, she claims, was to mark one year of her first bar tour. “This was pre­-Facebook, pre­-Twitter – I was mailing media kits and trying to hustle people to take the tour.” How times have changed – such is demand now that securing accommodation, and most likely sponsorship to attend, is the real hustle of 2017.

What’s also altered over the past decade and a half is the structure of the industry, and the rise of the cocktail ‘celebrity’ and industry role models. For Tuennerman, this is indicative of wider societal change and attitudes towards bartenders. “In the past 15 years one of the biggest changes is that it’s become okay to be a bartender again. It’s now a respected profession – in those early years, people were still asking bartenders what else they did for a living.”

The role of a role model

Tuennerman believes this is driven by increased interest in parallel industries, such as cooking and farming. But it does stir up questions over the position of ‘influencers’ and ‘role models’ – an interesting issue, given her increased exposure as a spokesperson, and recent events.

In March, Tuennerman issued an apology and her husband Paul stepped down from his role as chief business officer following a public backlash. She had posted a Facebook Live film showing her with black painted face during a Mardi Gras parade, accompanied by an offensive caption. The criticism, especially from the black community, has been widely reported.

“It’s interesting because I didn’t realise how much of a role model I was until the last several months,” she says. “But, yes, I am.” She is perhaps referencing the incident. She says she is not at ease in a bartender role because that is not what she does, but instead sees herself as more of an “advocate” for the industry and for women, and as an entrepreneur. “I actually don’t like to shy away from subjects – I think that’s where it’s our responsibility to take them on and lead.”

For her, three key topics where she’s started to do just that include sustainability, eliminating violence in bars through the introduction of a “years long” programme in partnership with violence­reduction organisation Green Dot Etcetera, and the launch of a TOTC Diversity Council.

It’s clear she has a platform, and for her, that’s what being an industry role model is about. “Last year we had people from 35 countries attend Tales of the Cocktail. We have our social network, our website platform, and we can reach 200,000 people through a Facebook post. We can inform a lot of people – that’s what we want to do because I think in most cases, like safety and sustainability, everybody wants to be more sustainable, they just don’t know how.”

It seems like a tough task for those at the forefront. Does the bar industry need more role models? “Probably,” she says. “I mean, I think we have a lot of really good role models right now. But we can always use more.”

With positions in the spotlight comes increased accountability – as Tuennerman seems to have discovered through recent events. Do those in positions of influence need more support?

She is initially unsure. “Let me think about that,” she pauses. “I don’t know if this answers the question, but let me give you an example. When we host our roundtables around the country after Tales of the Cocktail, I always invite people that have had criticism for us. Because one, I want to hear it directly; and two, if they are saying it, somebody else is probably thinking it. So you know, more support is great, but I also think you learn a tremendous amount from people with a different perspective who bring things to your attention.”

Progress and change does not come from an echo chamber. She adds: “We can’t insulate ourselves with people who just agree with us, because then we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Legislative challenges?

But the industry can act as a bubble in itself, especially when it comes to legislative challenges, and it could be argued that this is where the often inward­-looking on­-trade role models need to step up. But Tuennerman isn’t so sure. “I’ve not gotten involved in politics locally or nationally. We have organisations like the Distilled Spirits Council and others that are way better suited to do that than me.”

She does offer an exception: “Now, if it’s going to affect the bartender, then I will get involved.” Last year she took a stance on Airbnb, writing a letter to the TOTC community after one of her close colleagues was issued an eviction notice because her landlord wanted to use the properly for short­-term rents.

“Each short-­term rental takes revenue away from our own hospitality industry; if the hotels are operating below projected capacity, staff hours get cut, and employees get laid off,” she wrote. “Everyone wants the best deal they can find, but sometimes the best deal results in an exceptionally rotten deal for everyone else.”

Considering her non­-political stance, is it difficult to know when to get involved? “I think it’s pretty clear cut,” she says. Her colleague losing her home was the final straw. “I was like, okay, it’s time to say something.”

A development she is now putting a lot of effort behind is the Tales of the Cocktail Diversity Council. Following the Mardi Gras incident, Tuennerman set up the organisation, which will be co­-chaired by Bacardi’s Colin Asare-Appiah and New Orleans Redevelopment Authority’s Jasmine Haralson. The aim was to evaluate and develop diversity and inclusion initiatives in TOTC itself. “I saw it as an opportunity to do more and do some good out of a situation,” she says.

In the weeks following her apology she met with NOLA bartender Ashtin Berry, who had challenged her on Facebook to understand where her privilege lies. Berry later interviewed Tuennerman on Facebook Live to discuss race, a video which has at the time of writing had more than 10,000 views. “It’s the same as with Ashtin when I said I don’t hide from subjects,” Tuenneman continues. “And I’m super­-excited about the Diversity Council now – the people who have reached out to me are amazing.”

She says she doesn’t have a fixed idea for the council’s scope and remit, because it will be entirely led by Asare­-Appiah and Haralson. “I think they are going to do some surveying initially to see the people who are interested in being part of the council and the issues we need to tackle first. But my goal is to get them up and running, then they will be autonomous. We will provide them any support, any materials, and any information, but I won’t tell them how to do their job.”

The Diversity Council also follows a white paper published by TOTC in 2016 looking at barriers to progression in the on-trade, which focused mostly on gender. For Tuennerman, enabling conversations is critical to the position as an industry leader or role model. “I went to a class by a group called the Racial Equity Institute and talking about race is uncomfortable. Talking about gender is uncomfortable. So if we can just start, like the conversation with Ashtin… they’re difficult but we need to have them.”

More generally, how does she balance these responsibilities as a role model without burning out? “I get energised by these things, I like a challenge,” she says. “All these new things are interesting to me – and you do it because you love doing it and you love those challenges.” She laughs. “I probably need to learn to relax a little. But, you know, I have pretty good stamina.”

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