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How Female Bartenders Used the Farmers Market to Grow a Movement

CUESA celebrates Women Movers & Shakers after 10 years of cocktail events

Elisa Prado at the CUESA bar lab

When a group of 12 Bay Area bartenders arrived at the Ferry Building farmers market two weeks ago to select the spirits, fresh herbs, and local produce for drinks they’ll mix at the annual Spring Cocktails of the Farmers Market, the fact that all of them were women was definitely intentional, but hardly surprising to anyone who’s been following the Bay Area cocktail scene.

Since 2008, when CUESA, the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, began collaborating with the US Bartenders Guild (USBG) to host its annual produce-driven cocktail showcase, women have taken charge. “Now we’re just naming it,” CUESA director of development Christine Farren says.

That means Women Movers & Shakers: Spring Cocktails of the Farmers Market, held at the Ferry Building this Wednesday, April 18, isn’t some “tokenization” effort. “We’re not just trotting out the women we have in the industry,” says Farren. In bartending, as in sustainable agriculture — the related stars of the evening’s event — “women are leading.”

Those leaders include participants like Candice Jae (Mosto), May Lay (Novela), Ashley Miller (The Front Porch), Cindy Liu (Cold Drinks & Comstock Saloon) and many more. They’re joined by an all-female coterie of the area’s best chefs, including Tanya Holland (Brown Sugar Kitchen), Binita Pradhan (Bini’s Kitchen), and Reem Assil (Reem’s California, Dyafa).

At the group’s first pre-event gathering, the Ferry Building “bar lab” two weeks ago, the scene was a local bartender’s dream, with every imaginable tool and ingredient available.

“Everything’s at your finger tips,” says Alicia Walton of the Sea Star in Dogpatch. She selected mandarin juice, Meyer lemons, sugar snap peas, thyme, honey, and smoked salt to mix with Maestro Dobel Tequila.

Alicia Walton

Unfettered access to ingredients isn’t the event’s only advantage. “I think of this event as the best job interview you’ll ever have,” says longtime participant and organizer Keli Rivers, who currently runs the esteemed gin program at Whitechapel. It’s an opportunity for bartenders to meet spirits ambassadors and network with bartenders they might not otherwise work with.

“This might even be their first chance to create a drink completely on their own, and workshop it during the lab,” says Rivers.

At her first CUESA event appearance in 2009, “I was a giddy little school girl,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I’ve made it.’” It was also intimidating, “with all these bartenders I read about in the newspaper... everybody knew everybody.” As a woman bartender in the East Bay — at T-Rex and later Hotsy Totsy — Rivers felt somewhat sidelined, with press and cocktail fame seemingly reserved for white male bartenders in San Francisco.

The bartenders of the Women Movers and Shakers event

That’s changed, and quickly, and partly, thanks to Rivers herself. When Rivers started in the Bay Area hospitality industry 25 years ago, women bartenders were, “supposed to look good and not know anything.” If customers had a question about a spirit, for example, “they would go to a male instead of a female” employee.

“It used to feel in San Francisco like a white boys club,” says Summer-Jane Bell, another of the events’ organizers and River’s onetime Hotsy Totsy colleague. “It was really exclusive feeling.” At the same CUESA appearance for Hotsy Totsy with their mentor Jessica Maria, “we were the token women team.”

After the event, Rivers and Bell got involved in the USBG. Really involved. Bell eventually became the local chapter’s president, before stepping down recently to join the National USBG as general secretary. Rivers, meanwhile, began recruiting members for the guild: It’s now among the largest and best-funded chapters, with over 500 members.

“I wanted to get involved, and the more I got involved, the more I wanted to make sure other people like me weren’t on the sidelines, because that’s no fun for anybody,” Rivers says.

In terms of changing its demographic, bartending might have an advantage over other aspects of the restaurant industry. “There’s a lot more opportunities for quick advancement than there are in kitchen.” Rivers says. “I’ve had general managers ask, “How do I get more female bartenders?” I say, ‘you hire them.’”

While a general manager at Tradition from the Future Bars Group, she realized, “you need to hire the right person who has the interest, but also, you need to understand that you can hire somebody and train them up.” Three years ago, Future Bars flagship Bourbon and Branch was 95 percent male. Now it’s 60 percent female, she says.

Meanwhile, bartenders like Rivers have made it to the top of the ladder. According to Farren, CUESA’s development director, “When I look at the roster of which bartenders were working with us in the first two years, and how they’ve gone on to open their own bars, or become ambassadors — it’s a lot of them.”

The CUESA bar lab in action

The Sea Star’s Walton is one example: She’s participated in Cocktails of the Farmers Market before as a bartender and spirits rep. But this year, it’s her first time as the co-owner of her own bar.

”In San Francisco, I feel like we have a heavy hitter crew of ladies [in bartending],” she says. In that spirit, she reveals, “there’s a crew of us dressing up like GLOW” for the event. Expect Walton in a gold lamé body suit, and some spandex at every station in a clear signal that women have made their mark on the event.

Bell, for her part, is in the process of opening her own bar in Oakland. And Rivers is leaving the Bay Area to run the gin program at London’s Sipsmith Distillery, a dream job for any spirits professional. In her welcome speech to the bar lab crew, Rivers paused to reflect on the event and its participants.

“It was really empowering to me, to see... what these bartenders had been doing — they’re running their own bar programs, they’re winning competitions, their names are in the papers. You’re seeing this stepladder going and getting bigger and broader.”