Not just about booze and bitters, cocktail conference stirs up the hard stuff

SHARE Not just about booze and bitters, cocktail conference stirs up the hard stuff

Shelby Allison of Lost Lake, a Logan Square tiki bar. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Booze most definitely will be flowing during the Chicago Style cocktail conference, starting Monday, but so will the discussion of weightier topics including gender equity, inclusivity and sustainability.

Where other hospitality industry confabs feature shop talk on things like “Crazy About Bitters,” Chicago Style, billed as “equal parts think and drink,” aims to provide a platform for marginalized voices, according to Shelby Allison, co-owner of Lost Lake tiki bar and a founder of Chicago Style along with Sharon Bronstein (The 86 Co.) and Caitlin Laman (Ace Hotel Chicago).

While the conference, which is expected to draw attendees from across the country, will feature events like Bar Fight Club, the Speed Rack female bartender competition, and plenty of after-hour parties, the primary emphasis will be on information and education.

Chicago Style’s sold-out seminars, continuing through Thursday, will range from a look at the history of black bartenders to a roundtable on “empowering underserved and underrepresented communities” to a workshop on preventing sexual assault and harassment. A companion dinner party series will tackle subjects typically given short shrift in the male-dominated industry, including how to balance motherhood with the bartending profession’s family-unfriendly demands.

Bars, Allison noted, have a longstanding history of serving as organizing hubs for instigators of social movements. In the context of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, the time has come to bring about change within the hospitality industry itself.

“[Chicago Style] is for people who want to know how we can do better,” said Allison. “I’m a cis straight white woman. I know that I have a lot of listening to do. There will be straight white guys in the audience that have listening to do.”

At Lost Lake, Allison has made activism part of the bar’s mission, creating Shift Ease, a monthly party that’s raised funds for, among other causes, the Transformative Justice Law Project; Between Friends, which supports victims of domestic violence; and the Chicago Period Project, a grassroots organization that provides pads, tampons and other supplies to homeless women and those living in poverty.

“We definitely support organizations doing difficult work around topics that are depressing,” Allison said, but at the same time she and her team strive to make it fun for patrons to do a good deed. “With that kind of night on the calendar, it helps people come in and have a joyful time. Joy and activism don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

The question isn’t so much “if” bars should be active members of their community but “how” they should participate, said Jacyara de Oliveira, beverage director at El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina.

Deciding whether to host a neighborhood watch meeting, donate a gift card to a school raffle or hold a fundraiser for a political candidate is similar to choosing what spirits to carry or what beer to serve, de Oliveira said.

“I really don’t believe there’s much of an option not to engage. You won’t last as a business,” said de Oliveira, who’s been tapped to moderate a community engagement panel during Chicago Style.

During the time she previously spent behind the bar at Sportsman’s Club in Ukrainian Village, de Oliveira saw first-hand the benefits of community engagement, from expanding the bar’s reach to new customers to creating a sense of ownership among neighborhood patrons.

“We had people looking out for us,” de Oliveira said. Customers would tackle basic DIY repairs, she said, and even keep vulnerable bar employees company at closing.

“I felt safer,” said de Oliveira.

Mutual respect is key, particularly for bars on the tip of gentrifying areas, said de Oliveira.

When Sportsman’s opened in the location of a former run-down bar that had been a point of contention among neighbors, de Oliveira said she stressed with staff, “You have to be the kindest bartenders — big smiles,” and she also took the time to educate herself about the neighborhood’s Ukrainian immigrant population.

Allison and de Oliveira agreed that nothing says “everyone is welcome” quite like hiring bar staff from the community.

“If you are intentionally hiring and promoting people who historically live in the neighborhood, guests will see themselves represented on your team,” Allison said. “It shows you are actively trying.”

For more information on Chicago Style, including tickets to Bar Fight Club, go to

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