As the pandemic rages on, seeing how creatives in the hospitality sector, challenged by full shutdowns and navigating confusing rules and regulations has been a harrowing experience. By now, you have heard the Corona catch word ‘pivot’– but really, as many creatives (in any industry) would attest to, pivoting is just simply at the core of what being a creative is about. It’s that right brain tendency to come up with solution after solution without batting an eye (but maybe with an eye roll or a few expletives thrown in). Because who is a creative, if not one who thinks outside the box. Yet the question remains, how does this help when navigating the unknown?
After travelling the world with her online sustainable-focused manifesto and pop-up bar, Trash Tikki; Kelsey Ramage began a solo venture in Toronto. Her new cocktail bar, Supernova Ballroom, opened in October 2019. Supernova Ballroom took all of the sustainable learnings from Trash Tikki, like turning husks into cordials, pastries into orgeats, and created a disco-driven home for fizzy cocktails. Located in the heart of the financial district, these cocktails focused on local/regional organic suppliers and farmers from Ontario and across the country. Clearly this was a passion project for Kelsey.
Things were as sparkly as the disco ball that hung from the ceiling at Supernova Ballroom, yet, 2020 had different plans. As pandemic cases rose, new rules and regulations only supported a fraction of the existing bars/restaurants in Toronto. “Street side patios are great but there are also a good number of bars where that isn’t possible – bike lanes have prevented so many from being able to take advantage” Kelsey said. It did not help that others rushed to capitalize on the situation. “Patio heaters are also a major problem,” she continued. “Maybe just preventing online scalpers from buying all of them up and re-selling them to an already tattered industry at more than 2x the markup.” Sadly, in July, Supernova Ballroom closed its doors, which forced Kelsey to re-think her business model. Enter Dolly Trolley Drinks. Despite all of the uncertainty, in September, Kelsey was awarded the Tales of the Cocktail’s 2020 International Bartender of the Year.
Since 2015, Leyenda has stood as an homage to Ivy Mix’s years of living and bartending in Guatemala, celebrating Latin spirits, cocktails and food. Found in Brooklyn, Ivy’s co-owned bar with her mentor Julie Reiner, has received several accolades including Best Bar in America by Thrillist in 2019 and Tales of the Cocktail’s 2019 Spirited Award nominations for Best American Cocktail Bar, Best American Bar Team, and World’s Best Spirit’s Collection. Of course, Ivy herself is not shy of her own accolades, in 2015, Food and Wine Magazine named her one of the Most Innovative Women.
At the end of Feb 2020, business was as strong as ever as Ivy and her team were nominated for their second James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program. But celebrations halted mid-March as they made the decision to close while New York became a hot zone for the Coronavirus. Thankfully, as of October 1 and after many safety modifications, Leyenda has re-opened its doors. “I think it is extremely important to keep everyone safe. We cannot risk what happened before, we need to be cautious. But at the same time, we need to survive as businesses for ourselves and our staffs. I think patrons should understand that masks are mandatory and that it’s not a political statement. I also think there are ways to maintain a hospitable atmosphere while being safe”, states Ivy.
While riding the rollercoaster of highs and lows, both Kelsey and Ivy still have managed to keep things in stride. Kelsey’s Dolly Trolley Drinks service provides same-day cocktail delivery to the greater Toronto area. “It’s been really cool to see a brand that was born from necessity and almost, a ‘what do we do now?!’-state, to really develop into something that I love working on. It’s not exactly the same as working shifts in a bar every night, but it’s pretty rad that I still get to make drinks and do what I love, just in a slightly different way”, exclaims Kelsey. She is also a new member of the board of directors at the Bartenders Benevolent Fund, a Canadian non-profit for those working in the hospitality sector. Expanding on her creativity and goodwill, “I’m working on new ways we can find funding through events and programming, so we have more funds to distribute.”
Besides working on her tennis game and becoming a published author (Spirits of Latin America: A Celebration of Culture & Cocktails, with 100 Recipes from Leyenda & Beyond was published in May) Ivy joined the Independent Restaurant Coalition, helping represent bars within the independently owned restaurant industry. Their bill, the RESTAURANTS ACT has already passed in the House of Representatives and is en route to the Senate. While Ivy’s award-winning cocktail competition (co-founded, with Lynnette Marrero) Speed Rack has ceased physical events, the camaraderie of the community continues. Ivy explains, “I chat every day with a Speed Rack competitor somewhere in the world just as a method of support. I am on group texts and individual DMs. It has been so helpful to have this community in these times.” In October, Speed Rack moved to an online platform to continue to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness and help pay bartenders during this time.
Unfortunately, what Kelsey and Ivy have both experienced in the last months is not entirely unique to them. There are many individuals across the world who have experienced frustrating hardships of the pandemic, who have not been able to navigate the uncertainty as well as these two. What is admirable, is how quickly they both learned to move from the ‘I’ to the ‘We’.
To ‘Think outside the box’ is often considered as the ability to generate solutions to ongoing issues that arise. But as Kelsey and Ivy have demonstrated, it’s also looking beyond yourself; to support your community in any way possible. Seeing this as an obligation, Kelsey and Ivy have spread empathy and hope among their colleagues. They know that this moment is not forever and see the opportunities versus the obstacles. This, of course does not come without huge trepidation but might be key to maintaining momentum, without being completely disheartened during this extraordinary time.