After months of controversy, and wondering what would happen to one of the industry’s most beloved gatherings, the new owners, and board, of Tales of the Cocktail were announced. Holly Motion sat down with them see what’s in store…
If you were trying to salvage a brand that’s been besmirched by a blackface scandal, a further diversity row and questions of less-than-charitable use of finances, you’d think all your PR prayers had been answered if a local philanthropist and bartender combined forces to take on the rapidly depreciating enterprise.
Tales of the Cocktail must have a celestial compadre or two, because that’s exactly what happened. And now new owners Gary Solomon Jr and Neal Bodenheimer have set out on an apology pilgrimage – starting in Edinburgh – that seems to be healing a lot of wounds.
‘We wanted to go and listen to as much of the bartending community as possible and hear feedback,’ Solomon tells Imbibe. ‘We are talking to the community about what they want.’
The new owners are very candid about the event’s previous failings and say they are going to make some changes, in addition to donating $250,000 to the industry. The duo flew to Edinburgh with four weeks to go before Tales on Tour to face the music.
Spotlight on Edinburgh
‘The other Tales on Tours have been in less developed markets,’ Solomon says. ‘Tales in Mexico City had a lasting impact; Edinburgh doesn’t need that. People have been doing their thing at a really high level in Edinburgh for years. It needs less mentoring and more of a spotlight to show how dynamic it is.’
With six seminars slated across one day at the time of writing, Solomon implores the trade not to ask, ‘Is this it?’ and to understand Tales on Tour is a ‘changing picture’.
‘We’re looking [to see]if we can adjust the schedule for accessibility. We’re adding a welcome event and providing New Orleans food and music.’ Events are also being added with Edinburgh Gin and Bacardi Brown-Forman.
‘Tales on Tour will show what Edinburgh is all about,’ Solomon says. ‘That is our only goal; we want to showcase what makes it unique.’
They appear to be winning Auld Reekie’s business owners over. ‘They seem to be coming from a genuine place,’ Stu McCluskey of The Bon Vivant and Devil’s Advocate tells Imbibe. ‘They just want to make it right. They don’t have the time to make it as big as last year, because they only just bought Tales, and Tales on Tour happens in four weeks.
‘They’re just trying to make it as good and fun as they can, and distance themselves from what went before. They want to protect NOLA, but do it the right way. They’re coming at this with the hospitality industry in mind. They’re not running it for a profit.’
It’s great to donate (yeah)
Last year, the Edinburgh bartenders went all out and didn’t receive any free tickets to attend the two-day event, McCluskey says. Something the new owners were ‘horrified about’.
‘They’ve told us that they’re going to donate $25,000 to The 100 Scots. They’re just genuine, nice people from what I can tell, but the proof is in the pudding. We’re going to do some more stuff, it won’t be the same as last year, but we’re getting involved. I said I wouldn’t be involved if nothing changed, but this is Tales 2.0. I want to give those guys a chance.’
When it comes to NOLA, Solomon says this year is all about stabilisation and 2019 is going to be about change.
‘Ultimately, we are not going to throw the baby outta the bath water,’ Solomon says. ‘We aren’t hearing people call for a massive overhaul.
‘We are trying to listen to as many people as possible and really get down to the problems and what are the success and failures.’ Change, he says, won’t be a knee-jerk reaction.
‘It is our first time seeing under the hood,’ he adds. ‘We want to do our own assessment. We’re evaluating everything. But I don’t think you can evaluate before you see it yourself.’
The evaluation includes everything from seminars to awards, access and education. ‘I think that in 2018 Tales in New Orleans, there will be a lot more focus on why we get together and why we do this,’ Solomon says. ‘Tales has had a lot of success. If it was not so successful and treasured, then it probably wouldn’t have lasted this long. There is something working and we are going to find out what works and what doesn’t.
‘Tales was a rapidly depreciating business when we stepped in and they needed a unique buyer. It took some time to get the deal but I think it happened fairly quickly in the grand scheme of things – we closed it in three months. We were all on the same page and shared the same mission statement. There is something to be said for Ann and Paul: they didn’t sell to the highest bidder.’
Bringing on the brands
With the ink barely dry on the agreement, Solomon et al need to ensure brands are on side. And quick.
‘I was once told: if you serve the bartenders then the brands will follow,’ Solomon says. ‘Brands are critical to the success of Tales and we cannot do it without them. So, we are going to serve the bartenders first and make sure they all get something out of it.’
‘People really want to be at Tales,’ Solomon adds. ‘We want people to feel like they are getting more than they put into it.’
And the new owners want to make sure they give people a better reason to be there and spend their hard-earned money and sacrifice their precious time.
‘We have a great platform,’ Bodenheimer interjects. The owner of Cure and Cane & Table bars in NOLA says the spirits festival must tackle health and wellness, substance abuse, diversity and how to make the industry a better place. ‘We are not going to solve the world’s problems but we can certainly start the conversation.’
‘We are going to make sure it is run like a non-profit and it is mission-driven,’ the New Orleans native says.
As for transparency, Solomon says: ‘As a 501(c)3 foundation, we will publish an annual report summarising our revenue, expenses and grants issued on our website at the close of our fiscal year and also a Form 990 which will be filed with the IRS.
‘We are here to answer any questions that the industry may have to ensure transparency is available at all levels.’
So, ask away.