In 2011, Lynette Marrero and Ivy Mix launched Speed Rack, an all-female cocktail competition. Designed to spotlight women in a male dominated sector of the service industry, the event grew into much, much more. Speed Rack became a leading face of feminism in the craft cocktail world. As the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements bring equality issues into the mainstream conversation, Neat Pour sat down with Marrero and Mix to discuss sex and gender issues in the industry, New Orleans, and Speed Rack’s role in it all.
“Obviously, when we started SpeedRack seven years ago, women were not being represented in the industry,” began Marrero “The typical meme was a man with a mustache and arms garters, and women didn’t fit into that mold. We wanted to stand up and showcase the amazing women that were just as talented.”
However, Mix noted that times have changed. “Speed Rack started with the aim of women advancing in a male dominated industry. Now, there are women working at the best bars in the world,” she said.
Marrero added that as more women entered the industry, the focus shifted from simply shining a light on women in the industry to empowering them. The charitable aspect became a serious force, responsible for over $600,000 to fight breast cancer alone. “We’ve turned part time help lines into 24 hour help lines. We’ve helped fund research,” said Marrero. “If you care about the cause and care about women, you care about all the other things that go with it.”
The competition, itself, also continues to serve as a powerful stage for up-and-coming female bartenders. Dozens of of sponsors now participate. In the States, new cities are added to the circuit annually. Plus, the organization has gone global, hosting events abroad.
Yet, the most important function of the organization might have started as an intangible. “All of these women are part of a network. The past competitors all talk and have bonded together, building a bigger movement,” said Marrero. “We do things as both a group of women who can be vulnerable with each other and have people who have your back.”
Recognizing the value of that network, Speed Rack decided to survey members about needed services. The result is The Sisterhood Project, a collaboration with Misty Kalkofen and Sharon Bronstein. Sisterhood aims to harness the power of this community. Specifically, the initiative provides women in the industry with mentorship and seminars, as well as less formal meet ups. Topics include practical matters like financial planning and health along with added opportunities to simply talk with peers.
Another statement is evident in the location of the next Speed Rack regional. On Monday (1.29), the contest will set up shop in New Orleans, home of Tales of the Cocktail. Last year, Speed Rack and Tales planned a high profile partnership. However, after disturbing stories about Tales began to emerge, the organizers reevaluated that decision. “We decided not to partner with TOTC. Women in our community were upset, and we decided to stand by them,” detailed Marrero.
The team stayed in contact with the Louisiana bartending community and continued to listen to their requests. Here was a core group that deserved support. After much discussion, they decided that holding a Speed Rack event in the Crescent City could serve a means of reconciliation. “NOLA is about being part of the healing process and starting to bring the community together again.”
Despite these positive advances by her own group, Mix theorized that brands remain the key player. “Can you imagine if there was a sexual assault code printed on every bottle of spirits? Right on the label,” she mused.
In the meantime, she believes that lots of change can come about just by basically thinking and acting. “A lot of it is a matter of people being aware and not ignoring [wrongdoing,]” she posited. “For example, maybe you’re friend Jimmy is super wasted and not aware that he is making that girl feel uncomfortable. Maybe, you should tell Jimmy to knock it off.”
Marrero agreed with the scenario, but was careful to make a distinction. “It’s not alcohol creating the behavior; the alcohol becomes the excuse for the behavior.” She then pushed for some solid measures like increased training industry-wide and zero tolerance policies. Likewise, she stressed that the issues fall on both sides of the bar. “We should not give consumer the power to abuse the staff.”
Neither woman is shy about their stances. In fact, Mix noted that she and Marrero became “defacto spokespeople for women in the industry” as Speed Rack grew. “When I started, I was in a very small group of women. Now, there is a responsibility for what I say and what I do and how that affects a larger group of women,” Marrero explained. “What I do and say now is aimed at creating a more progressive dialogue Be strong, but be willing to listen and be vulnerable at the same time.”
However, Mix stresses that serving as a spokesperson is not a marker of progress.“We created SpeedRack so that women could have a voice,” she elaborated. “Hopefully, with this platform, all these incredible women will be asked these questions. And hopefully, the answer will soon be, ‘Being a woman in this industry is just like anyone else working in any other industry.’”