On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe are joined by Rania Zayyat, founder of “Lift Collective.” The nonprofit organization seeks to change the wine world through promoting thoughtful discussions, mentorship, and opportunities. The three discuss Lift Collective’s recent 2021 Virtual Conference.
Zayyat explains how inclusivity in the hospitality industry is important in establishing a forward-thinking culture. Examples, she says, include treating hospitality workers with more respect, accessible health care, and the acknowledgement of women in the industry. Tune in to hear the three recap the 2021 Lift Collective Virtual Conference.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach, next week is April. This is nuts.
Z: We’ve been doing this for a while, and the dilation of time during the pandemic has been real. I’m sure it’s true for you in New York, where you go quickly from being dark all the time to getting lighter and lighter, to Daylight Savings Time. That is a big, weird shift. It’s definitely throwing me off a little bit. The Seattle weather is cooperating, so that’s always nice. We’re doing well here. How are you doing?
A: I’m OK. Just ready for some nice, outdoor, warm-weather hangs, and I’m excited for more people, including myself, to get a shot and move forward. It’s such an interesting time because we’re all thinking, what’s next? There’s still so much happening now. Yeah, I’m really excited to start making Margaritas again.
Z: I can’t believe you stopped.
A: Yeah, I don’t know. I just did. I think I over consumed them in the summer and fall of last year so I took a break. Now, I’m getting back into it. Let’s do this.
Z: Yeah, that’s fair. I haven’t quite hit my spring-summer cocktail groove yet. I’m still drinking Manhattans. That first semi-nice day, I will be all about it. I want to ask you what have you been drinking lately?
A: I actually have been drinking some Margaritas obviously as I said. Besides that, last night, I had a very good beer and now I’m forgetting the name of it, but it’s brewed by Bell’s. It was a session-like version of a juice, citrus-hop- forward IPA. It was absolutely delicious. I almost want to run to my fridge and look at the name of it because I’m embarrassed. It was really, really tasty and I love it. It was 4 percent alcohol. It was nice to have one beer and feel very chill. It also went well with the cheese plate that I put together for dinner because I’m a big fan of a cheese plate once a week for dinner. It’s super easy, so that’s been delicious. Besides that, not a lot, actually.
Z: OK, but we need to have the cheese plate conversation because you brought it up. In your opinion, what is the minimum number of cheeses to call it a cheese plate, and are there any absolutes to have on a cheese plate?
A: The minimum number, I’ve never thought about this before. I’m going to go with three because that’s what I usually have on the plate.
Z: I agree. Three is the bare minimum.
A: I’m not about a grazing board, because that’s all the rage on Instagram where it’s completely full. I like to have some space between the cheese and then usually something super creamy and funky. That’s usually something hard-ish. Anything that can run the gamut. Again, I go by my taste with Naomi’s taste. We like all the same kinds of cheeses, but either a Comté or maybe it’s cheddar or a gouda but something somewhat hard. Then, we move into the blues.
Z: OK, so my blue cheese thing…
A: I know you’re going to say.
Z: Is it butter on blue cheese?
A: You showed me it.
Z: I think that’s right. I have already shared this with you. For our listeners who aren’t familiar, I learned in France that what you get with your cheese plate is you get blue cheese and some butter. It made total sense to me when I tried it, because one of the things about blue cheese that can be really hard for people is that there’s not a lot of remaining fat in blue cheese. The mold consumes a lot of that. You add a little butter to add some richness back in, and it makes a big difference. I’ve converted several blue skeptics with that trick. I’m with you on the cheese board. To me, the only thing that I would say is that I’m a big fan of having one non-cow’s milk cheese at a minimum just for flavor difference.
A: I love a cheese plate, though. It’s a very easy dinner with some really fresh bread. It’s a very delicious thing. It’s no muss, no fuss. I am a big fan of that. But let’s get into today’s discussion.
Z: Let’s do it.
A: Welcome our guest again, Zach.
Z: I will, which is apparently my role on the podcast. But we are super thrilled to be joined again by Rania Zayyat, who is the co-founder of Lift Collective. We’re here mostly to talk about the just-completed Lift Collective Virtual Conference, which both you, Adam, and Rania were participants. Rania, thank you so much for your time.
Rania Zayyat: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Z: Our pleasure. I want to ask first of all, how did it go?
R: It was better than any of our team could have expected or imagined it to go. Feeling all the feels today and last night, being inspired by the engagement, the attendance, the speakers, the conversations throughout the two days, and conversations that I know and hope will continue to happen within the community post-conference.
A: Very cool. Obviously, I was lucky enough to be able to attend some of the sessions. I thought that the conference as a whole was amazing. It was really cool to watch the conferences. This was obviously virtual, which it had never been before, but I thought it was really cool seeing all of the conversations happening in the chat, which made it even more powerful in a lot of ways. To see how the speakers or panels brought up to the fore issues. Then, watching people react to those issues and share their own experiences. That was really amazing because I know that often happens at conferences, right? There’s a speaker and then people go out of the lecture hall and have their side conversations. To see that happening in real-time, I think was pretty amazing. What have you heard? It hasn’t been 24 hours since the close of the conference but from people who have attended, were there some conversations that were really memorable to you that people were having? Or reactions?
R: To your point about the conversations in the chat, that to me was one of the greatest parts of this event because we never had the intention or idea to do a virtual conference, simply for the fact that we felt it wouldn’t be as engaging. On the contrary, people being able to have those chats while these conversations were happening just would not have been possible at an in-person event because everyone’s silent and we’re listening to the message. To have that going on and to feel the energy that was happening through the chat and the connections and watching people provide resources that dove a little bit deeper, that was so inspiring. I was so pleased with having so many people there who have not felt they’ve had a voice or a safe space in our industry due to all of the issues that we were discussing throughout the conference. People finally felt that here is an event, here is a community where they felt seen, valued, respected, and safe in these conversations. That’s all that we really wanted to do with this event. I’m so grateful that people spoke up about that.
Z: Absolutely. I know that sense of being heard and seen is hugely important. I know that there’s going to be a longer answer here than we could possibly fit on the podcast. As far as takeaways and actionable items coming out of this, are there a few things that came out of either the panel discussions or those side conversations that our listeners can take forward and say, here are things that we can be doing in a concrete sense moving forward. In addition to just making space and listening.
R: I think one of the biggest messages and takeaways is “action.” I think that we have been in a place, especially in the last year in 2020, where it was all about, “OK, we’re going to listen. We’re going to learn. We’re going to read. We’re going to try and figure out how to better understand and be better allies.” Now, the conversation is shifting over to “it’s not enough to just be an ally. We have to be an accomplice.” That was something that came out of the de-colonize wine panel with Jirka, Jahde, and Eti about what we are actually doing? When are we standing up? When we are witness to harm and abuse that’s happening in real time, in a space that we’re in, we can’t sit back and be silent anymore. We can’t provide the excuse that we didn’t have the verbiage or know what to say. If we actually want to show up and continue to do this work, we have to take action. We have to speak up. We have to say something. To me, that is the biggest takeaway of all of this is “yes, it’s a learning opportunity, but are we asking the right questions? Are we putting ourselves in, quote-unquote, uncomfortable situations? Are we getting comfortable with that discomfort? How are we using the unique privilege that we have, which is different for everybody. but how are we using that to stand up for people who don’t necessarily have that same privilege and who experience trauma and harm on a daily basis?”
A: In some of the sessions, I think there was a mixed take on how Covid has impacted people showing up and paying attention to some of the speakers on the panel I was on. It felt as if Covid has made us all pay attention more because we’ve had more time. Then, reactions on other panels I listened to, people paid less attention because they’ve been more focused on what’s happening in their day-to-day life and surviving. However, now that we seem to be coming out of Covid, what do you think is the biggest thing people should be thinking about as they are either going back to work in the industry or going to take part in dining at restaurants where people in the industry work; shopping in wine shops that are more in-person interactions. What are some lessons and rules that we should be taking with us as we go and do that?
R: That’s a big question. I think it’s important that we understand what we don’t understand. Being able to know that we don’t necessarily have all the answers about how we can show up for people but needing to ask those questions. “What do you need?” Dr. Hoby Wedler, one of our speakers this year, is a blind wine professional. He’s mentioned this several times, that we don’t always know how to cater to the needs of others but we can’t make the assumptions of maybe if I do this, then that will be helpful. We just have to say, “Hey, what do you need? How can I best support you.” And being able to just educate ourselves through really intelligent questions is a great way to do that.
Z: I know that the conference obviously focuses on lots of different dimensions of the beverage alcohol industry. We are in this period of time now as the Covid pandemic is not over, but places are starting to reopen fully. People are getting vaccinated. We’re in this period where I think for a lot of people in the hospitality industry, they’re either looking at potentially going back to work for the first time in a year, people who are employers are perhaps hiring. Employment is not the only place where these issues are important, but it’s a huge area where it is a big point of impact, where being conscious of these issues is so important. I’m wondering, was there something to be said about this idea that we’ve had this industry-wide pause, reset? Are there ways to come out of this Covid-related period and make substantive change in the hospitality industry?
R: Yeah, I definitely think this is such a great time because we’ve had such a pause, a long pause. I won’t get into all of the issues with the hospitality industry and protecting workers. There’s a whole set of issues that have needed to be addressed for a while with that. However, this is such a great time to actually start implementing those changes slowly as we’re starting to reopen and set new precedent for what those structures of positions will look like. How can we better protect our employees? Shifting the dynamics of restaurant culture. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that with this event, we put on a code of conduct at the suggestion of Jirka Jireh on our de-colonize wine panel, to say that we have a zero-tolerance policy for these types of violence and discrimination and really setting the tone for creating safe space. This is something that I’ve mentioned before, but zero-tolerance policies are something that we as an industry have not fully adopted yet, particularly at a restaurant because you are engaging with so many different people. Often, there can be this sense of entitlement for guests to come in and either bring their own problems into their dining experience projecting those onto their servers, or feeling like they should get everything that they ask for, even if that’s not what the restaurant typically provides. Then, being able to go out and make public complaints or give a restaurant a low rating, which can really affect the jobs, income, and livelihood of restaurant employees. I think it’s really important that as restaurant owners and managers, that we are setting up systems to protect our employees and to say “the customer is not always right.” We need to say “if there is an issue with the guests, how are we showing up for our employees?” Also, something that Ashtin touched on during her keynote, was that we can only dismantle what we can name, but we often only name things that can be proven through physical proof. If somebody has been violently or physically harmed, we can start to dismantle that, because there’s proof. Other types of harm that occur could be more nuanced or more subtle; we often don’t have the understanding or the verbiage to really start to dissect those behaviors and protect people to show up for them and dismantle those things. I think that’s such an important part of what we can start doing. If you have an employee that comes up to you and says, “This guest made me feel really uncomfortable,” how are we validating those concerns? How are we protecting the people that are showing up and making our restaurant operate on a day-to-day basis? Hopefully, that is something that I would really love to see the hospitality industry start to prioritize as we reopen.
A: I think what you’re saying is really important. I also wonder if it’s as much about all of us — VinePair being important because we’re a media platform — educating the guest as well where this culture of the “customer is always right” is no more. If that’s what you expect as being high-quality service, you’re wrong. High-quality services, meaning that you’re getting a great experience, but you’re also just as respectful to the people who are serving you as they are to you. I believe there’s so much media out there that reinforces that idea. As much as an industry talks about how we need to show up for the people working there, that’s great, but if we’re not also changing the behavior of the guests, then it’s just going to be this one-sided thing. We’re going to continue to show up for the people and say this isn’t OK, but the guest still thinks, “screw you, I’m not going to leave a tip. I’m not going to support a fair wage and I’m going to go leave a bad Yelp review.” Was there any conversation about that? How restaurants can better explain to their guests what’s expected of them? Is it potentially notes on a menu? I hate to say there should be a code of guidelines, but it was pretty amazing in the early aughts, if you will, when the craft cocktail bars were putting out rules. They would say to the guests that you will not approach another table. You will not speak at this level of volume. You will speak to the bartender in a respectful manner. At that point, they were combating against the culture that they were creating bars against, which is the loud, party-bar culture. We should just do that moving forward for everyone. Let guests know when you show up that this is what’s expected of you. Is that something that anyone chatted about, and what’s your reaction to that?
R: I don’t recall that specific conversation coming up in the chat. It might have when I wasn’t fully engaged. I will say that I think that is such an important way to move forward. I live in Austin, and there are a group of restaurants here that are part of an organization that is really working to create long-term change for restaurant culture and hospitality culture. They are providing things such as mental health services to their employees. Those early adopters of these policies are often the ones that can take the biggest financial hit because oftentimes they’re standing alone. If somebody doesn’t like something or the way that they’re being told this behavior is not OK, then it’s easy for a guest to just say, “OK, I’m not going to go back to that place, but I’m going to go somewhere else that can cater to the needs and the demands that I have.” I think it’s important that more of us are getting on this train and are supporting each other through that. I think that it is going to take collective action for these changes to start resonating with guests and diners across the country. We can certainly start small. There are obviously a lot of restaurant groups that are starting to remove tipping culture. We’ve seen that in New York and restaurants here in Austin and I’m sure many other cities. But it’s about providing fair wages. It’s about providing mental health services. It’s about actually naming the actions that we don’t want to accept and don’t want our workers to be subjected to. I think it’s really important that, even if we start small, even if it’s some small thing that we put on our menu saying that we don’t accept this type of treatment or behavior or words, we’re still starting somewhere. The best time to do that is to start today.
Z: Rania, you mentioned a piece of it, and Adam you did, too, that I think is really important. I know you mentioned there wasn’t a ton of conversation specifically about this idea of codes of conduct or ways to inform guests of what is and isn’t allowed. You mentioned, Rania, the central importance of tipping and tip culture to this toxic potential environment, where, because the front-of-house workers in most places, their wages are so tied to tips; tips are at the discretion of the customer and the customer expectations are that they will be indulged in a variety of ways, many of which are, as it turns out, harmful to the service staff. I know when we spoke beforehand that one of the things about having the virtual conference is it allowed for more international participation. Obviously, there are lots of other countries that have strong cultures without tipping or much tipping. Is that something that’s been discussed, or does getting rid of tipping or greatly minimizing its importance disarm some of that power imbalance that we find in restaurants and bars?
R: Yeah, I definitely think that is exactly what it comes down to. It is this power imbalance of who has the power and who feels they can dictate what someone gets to take home at the end of the day or at the end of the week, simply because something wasn’t in line with their expectations. I don’t necessarily think that it’s fully possible to remove tipping in general. Unfortunately, the structure of the restaurant and hospitality industry, I don’t think that we’re prepared to put that burden on restaurants being able to fully compensate all of their staff, because unfortunately, it really is a structural issue with restaurants and the pricing of food. Unfortunately, if we were to build that price into the food, for instance, so that there is maybe more distribution of wages being split between back and front of the house, people would find restaurants to be too expensive. That would ultimately lead to the demise of restaurants in general. I think there are ways around that where you can have automatic gratuity added to that check as a line item. I’ve seen in the Bay Area that there is a 3 percent charge on the tab that supports healthcare for restaurant workers. It’s those types of things that if we get used to seeing them and knowing that is going to be on the bill when we go out to eat, it’s going to really help people understand that this is something that is expected. If you feel you can afford to go out to eat at a restaurant, that means you can afford to pay 20 percent gratuity to the staff.
A: One of the things that Ashtin talked about towards the end of her talk was looking to other industries for examples and what they’ve done. For people who didn’t hear what she had to say, what industries should we be looking to? Obviously, no one’s doing it perfectly, but here are some things that they’ve done. Here are ways that we can borrow what they’ve done and make it better. I know that she was really talking about the bar industry compared to the wine industry, and also looking towards the coffee industry. Are there other places for us to point to that work and we need to adopt it in the world of wine and then in the world of sort of hospitality as a whole?
R: Certainly. She did mention specifically the cocktail industry and coffee. While those are definitely two industries that I’m unfamiliar with, I think that as consumers of those products and even the chocolate industry — I’ll throw that out there as well — I don’t know about anybody else, but when I’m going out and buying coffee or chocolate, I often look for things like Fair Trade Certified or these transparent organizations and initiatives that I know when I’m buying this bar of chocolate or whatever it is, that the people who are harvesting these products are hopefully being fairly compensated and are not in abusive or exploitative environments. They are being treated humanely. There’s been a lot of conversation in recent years and brewing under the surface of exploitation of migrant laborers, vineyard workers, and the unsustainability of harvest in general. Also, a shortage of laborers. I think that there are a lot of people trying to do good things that are starting small, but being able to look at the models those industries had in place for many years and building upon that. I would certainly love to see more collaboration on how we can make those changes a little bit faster and more impactful from the beginning, rather than starting off super small.
Z: Part of the issue with wine, in particular, is that when it comes to this idea of morally or ethically oriented purchasing, people are more fixated on organic agricultural practices and may not be as attuned to the idea that these are also products that do require a lot of labor? I think there’s sometimes a misconception in general with wine, that the wine makes itself. It doesn’t really get talked about as an agricultural product. Is that part of the issue here?
R: Yeah, definitely. This is a storytelling industry, right? There’s so much power in how we tell these stories. Often, we’re starting the story halfway through the process. We start it with harvest. We started with the winemaking process with the winemaker and what’s happening in the winery. We completely leave out all of the work that happens throughout the year to sustain this vine and to grow these grapes. Even after the wine is made, the distribution of that wine and how we’re shipping these things, who is doing that work. We’re leaving out so many fundamental parts of the story. As we begin to shift that narrative and take those conversations into the dining room, when we’re selling wine to guests or even putting them out there on our e-commerce platforms, there’s so much power in shifting the way that we talk about the whole product.
A: It makes a lot of sense. Obviously, there were so many conversations and presentations that happened during the conference. Were there any others for you that really stood out that people who were not able to attend should be aware of?
R: There are so many great things to take away. I think some of my key highlights, aside from what I mentioned earlier about taking action, is during our Shifting Women and Wine Culture panel moderated by Elaine Chukan Brown, we talked about this idea of “womanism” and giving credit to those who actually started these movements. When we look back at the suffragist movement, which was actually started in the 1800s by Black women who unfortunately did not get the right to vote until the 1960s. From there, when gay rights started in the ‘60s and ‘70s, that was actually a movement that was started by the Black trans community. The trans community is still so far behind in receiving the rights, dignity, and humanity that they deserve. Yet, they have carried so much of the burden in starting these movements, but unfortunately are not benefiting from their labor. I think that was a really important topic. Shifting over to the entrepreneurship panel and making space for self-made, moderated by Regine Rousseau. Understanding that there are a lot of barriers to entry for getting funding and understanding how to create a business plan, how to market, and how to use social media to your advantage as a business owner. Once you can figure those things out, utilizing some of the resources that were provided. The power that comes out of being a business owner, being able to advocate for yourself, but also advocate for others. Because you get to start something new, you get to build something from the ground up. You really have full control of saying this is what I’m going to adhere to as a business owner, and this is what I’m not going to adhere to. Being able to create those changes business by business is really important.
Z: Rania, I have one last question for you. This is for people who either were not able to attend or were able to attend some of the sessions: Are there ways to get to view the recordings, to engage with the content, even if they couldn’t be there live in real time?
R: Yeah, I’m so grateful that we were able to record all of the panels. Those will be available to everyone that registered for the conference in having access to those videos. Thankfully, somebody on our team brilliantly collected all the links that were shared throughout the chat that day about other resources and cool initiatives. We’ll be sharing and distributing that information, and will most likely have the conference panels available for viewing to people that weren’t able to register this time to view a little bit later down the road. I do want to throw out one more thing. We were talking about entrepreneurship, how money is power, and being more comfortable with conversations about money. I was so proud that, we were not able to do this in our first year, but we were able to actually pay all of our speakers and moderators this year for the conference. I think that’s a really important thing to mention because as a nonprofit, it is often very hard to gain the funds needed to be able to host an event like this that really greatly impacts the community. Everyone that participated in this conference put in so much time, labor, and preparation to really bring these conversations to life. I’m just really grateful and hopeful that we can continue to do that. Hopefully, other organizations will be able to recognize the importance of actually paying people for this work, because even though it is for a good cause, it’s something so many of us do every single day. It is work, time, emotional labor, and a lot of energy goes into it. There are so many moving parts behind the scenes of running a nonprofit, and a platform that’s been really helpful to us is Melio, because we’ve been able to automate scheduling and receiving all of our payments through our sponsors and speakers that we’re paying without actually having to write and mail physical checks. Yeah, I want to shout out to them. Thank you, Melio for simplifying that process.
A: You actually led me up to my final question. I’m sure you’re already thinking about the conference for next year, but what else is on the horizon for Lift Collective? What are your plans in the next year, and how can people support you?
R: Thank you. There’s a lot that we want to do. I think that one of the things, just based on the conference, is we would really like to formulate some sort of ongoing tool or resource on our website where people can continue to share resources. If that’s related to mental health for industry workers, if that’s for ways to get funding for starting your own business, just mental health support, all those things, we want to be able to build something on our website. We also want to have these conversations more than once a year. We are trying to work out some sort of way that we can continue to host webinars or host these conversations. I think a lot of the topics that we cover could really take up so much more time than we were able to give within that platform. So just being able to really dive deeper into these topics, understand them better, and continue to educate industry workers and consumers about the issues that we’re facing and the adaptability of how we can actually take action.
A: And you’ve got to answer me again. How do they support you?
R: Yes, 501(c)(3) nonprofit. So we do accept donations, which is very, very helpful for us to continue to do these types of programs. Through our website, they can go onto liftcollective.org and click “donate.” They can also support some of the other inspiring initiatives that we have listed on our website. Follow us, engage in the conversations that we’re having, purchase tickets to the conference in the future or any other programs that we’re hosting.
A: Amazing. Rania, thank you so much for your time, for everything that you do for this industry, for the creation of Lift Collective. And to all of your partners, associates, everyone that helped put this conference on and helps this organization exist, we really, really appreciate it. Please keep doing what you’re doing.
R: Thank you so much for hosting me and also for being a big supporter of our organization.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shoutout to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.