Sunday will see the opening of the 10th year of Portland Cocktail Week, a weeklong educational and networking program in Oregon providing vital business skills and lessons to bartenders.
Founded in 2009 by former video producer and bartender Lindsey Johnson, the program specializes in offering the gritty personal finance and business management guidance that bartenders need to launch and run their own bars and restaurants, such as improving personal credit scores or budget planning. Usually, without financial resources or access to higher education and industry connections, this kind of intel is generally hard to get otherwise—especially for women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, all of whom have been historically ostracized in the hospitality industry.
So Portland Cocktail Week provides these resources for free to participants.
“By removing the financial barrier to entry in an industry with huge labor and pay disparities, we were able to help level the playing field and create an environment that welcomed people from all backgrounds and demographics,” says Johnson. “That part is baked into our DNA and hasn’t really changed. The evolution, though, came in the type of programming we offered.”
The week includes tracks for bar management, bar ownership, consulting, hospitality, bartending, applied science, and strategies for reducing waste. And the classes themselves are free of commercial influence. So no courses that double as sponsored content events hosted by vodka or tequila brands. (However, there is an exhibit hall with plenty of reps for spirits brands slinging their wares.)
Sixty-four students are assigned to each track (or “major”) and take eight assigned classes and workshops that have been developed with the deans of each program. Students move their way through the program, learning the key ideas that they will need to pursue their chosen career paths in the bar industry. In addition to those classes, each student is required to take sexual assault prevention training.
“We require all of our students to attend each of these classes to ensure we’re able to provide complete thoughts,” Johnson says. “Eight hours certainly isn’t enough time to learn how to be a bar manager or owner, but these eight focused hours can help guide your next steps and connect you with the people who share your passions.”
It should be noted that PDX Cocktail Week is open to anyone working in the hospitality industry, but the 384 student spots this year are reserved for working bartenders, managers, and owners. Employees at spirits brands, or even well-versed cocktail enthusiasts, can attend Portland Cocktail Week with an industry pass for $250. Working bartenders who can’t commit to a full week away can still attend for free, but admission passes are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Portland Cocktail Week is produced by Lush Life Productions, a media production company also founded by Johnson with the intent of helping other industry professionals build out media content about their work, mostly through photography and videography. Lush Life has since evolved to be what the company describes itself as “the only singularly focused bartender advocacy agency” in the United States. Johnson says she recognized that bartenders needed more support with personal finance, health and wellness, and career training, but the first priority was getting them paid well enough to think beyond survival mode.
Johnson worked her way through college at Stony Brook University on Long Island, N.Y., through various bartending jobs while also waiting tables. Johnson says she saw firsthand that bartenders needed fairer and higher wages, as well as more meaningful attention from spirits brands.
After college, Johnson was hired as a video producer at Delish.com, and it was while working for the culinary-forward site that she came to see that she enjoyed making digital content that highlighted bartenders and the work they do. It was also during this time that she learned cocktail book author Dale DeGroff—who was once described by the New York Times as “one of the world’s foremost cocktail experts”—was hiring a video crew at the last minute for a Woodford Reserve project at the Belmont Stakes. Johnson jumped at the opportunity, and Lush Life Productions was born.
Since 2009, the application pool for the classroom events at Portland Cocktail Week has grown to more than 3,000 bartenders nationwide (and a few outside the U.S.) applying each year, with approximately 400 accepted into the program. To date, 12,675 bartenders from across the U.S. have attended, and several businesses have emerged.
Johnson and her team at Lush Life Productions also run Camp Runamok, essentially a summer camp for bartenders located in the heart of Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. Launched in 2012, the camp is designed to offer a private setting for bartender networking—free from big city distractions—which is meant to encourage attendees to actually get to know one another while networking with bartenders from coast to coast.
It’s arguable there’s a little more commercial influence at Camp Runamok, albeit with an educational bent that is more about the craft than marketing. While at camp, attendees have scheduled whiskey tastings with master blenders at notable Kentucky bourbon makers, such as Wild Turkey, Four Roses, and Woodford Reserve.
And like Portland Cocktail Week’s educational tracks, while the program is free to ensure universal access, Camp Runamok has installed an application process for attendees. Applicants are selected based on the quality of their essays, geography, gender, and racial equity. In 2018, there were 3,500 applicants for 300 spots. To date, 2,125 bartenders have participated in Camp Runamok. In 2020, there are plans to take it international with a camp in Ireland.
Looking forward, Johnson’s vision for PDX Cocktail Week and Camp Runamok is centered on continuing to democratize education and business training. Those goals are still a work in process, but initial plans include growing Lush Life’s digital footprint as well as offering year-round training for bar professionals via streaming or other video platforms.
“Eventually, I believe our event is poised to become an incubator for new ideas, businesses, and programs, and I hope that we can mentor the next generation as we all move toward a more positive and inclusive bar industry,” Johnson says.
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