On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Brian Connors, director of the Bacardi Center of Excellence at Florida International University. The center is part of a dynamic partnership between the Bacardi brand and FlU to develop students in the realm of hospitality and tourism management. Through the program, Connors seeks to teach students how to adapt to a new world of hospitality through disciplines such as beverage management, fine spirits, industry innovation, sustainability, and entrepreneurship.
The program’s goal is to reimagine what hospitality may look like during a pandemic. By embracing this “new normal,” the center has given students opportunities for safe, hands-on learning experiences — solving problems introduced by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tune in to learn more about how the next generation of hospitality is being schooled.
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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes so we can focus on a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Brian Connors. He’s the director of the Bacardi Center of Excellence at Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Management. Brian, that is a long title. How are you doing?
Brian Connors: Zach, I’m doing great, man. Thank you very much for having me. This is going to be a fun conversation.
Z: Let’s start with some background for people who might not be familiar with the Bacardi Center of Excellence and the Chaplin School. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is and how it came to be?
C: Absolutely. We’re actually approaching our 50th anniversary for the FIU hospitality program, and for a lot of us in the beverage industry, that last name or the name Chaplin should also ring a bell, as we are the beneficiaries of the Chaplin family of Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits. They’re just a wonderful group to work with. We actually took on the name as the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management a little over 10 years ago. Right now, we are the second-largest hospitality program in the United States. FIU as a whole, we’re a big school with the fourth-largest research institution in the United States. We got a lot of horsepower behind it. Our world here in South Florida and our partnerships that we’ve gained between the South Beach Food and Wine Festival has definitely put us on the map. Now, over a year ago, we partnered up with Bacardi North America. They were very generous and gave us a $5 million gift, and within that, we created the Bacardi Center of Excellence. Our mission is to raise awareness, to raise the education level, to support, and so forth. Not only the FIU students that are going to be pursuing careers in the beverage industry, but also the industry as a whole. We’ll definitely get a chance to talk about some of the initiatives that we did from Bacardi Teach, which is an online platform that we created during Covid that’s available to everyone for free. We will be having some other additional badged or for-credit courses also available there. There might be a small fee for that one, Zach, but it’s again, for credit, so it’s slightly different. We saw great success with that. We launched very quickly to give back, to up-skill. We’ve had now, I believe, over 3,000 courses taken. If you take five courses successfully, you’re able to gain your badges that equal up to a certificate of excellence, which is a great resume label for individuals getting back into the workforce. We’ve had over 200-plus individuals take multiple courses and gain certificates. Zach, the best part about that initiative is we are just getting started. We’ve got some great stuff coming out.
Z: As you said, this is just a little over a year old and possibly perfect timing, given what happened to the beverage and hospitality industry and everyone in the last year. I want to get a sense from you, before we talk a little bit more, about the Bar Project 2021, which is super interesting to me. In particular, can you speak more to the student base at FIU in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management? Because I think this is something that some of our listeners are going to be very familiar with. Some may very well be grads, but others will not necessarily know a lot about how these programs work in a modern education environment. Are your students mostly typical college age, 18- to 22-year-olds, or are there a lot of people going back to school at some point in their career? How does that break out?
C: We have one of those great backgrounds. We have the traditional learner that would be coming to us right out of high school, and that’s fantastic. We also have individuals that are seeking their master’s degree that is coming directly from the industry. We also receive a good amount of veterans from the VA that come in from there as well. Veterans actually come in and join us as well. One of the best parts about our student makeup here, particularly down here in South Florida, is the vast majority of our students are also working in the industry. We’re slowly but surely seeing them coming back to the industry now. Our makeup is pretty interesting because we’re 70 percent female. Out of that, a good majority are first-generation college students, the first in their family to go to college, which we celebrate. We also have an incredibly diverse overall makeup of our student body. I think one of the best parts about the Chaplin School is our willingness and desire for partnerships with the industry. We’re firm believers in bringing the industry into the classroom as much as we possibly can so our students get exposed, from our hotel restaurant program, to our beverage program, and to our culinary program. We have fantastic partners that we’ve teamed up with, and that’s going to be something that’s a little unusual. Not all schools have that opportunity, and I think back to one of the best partnerships we have is the South Beach Food and Wine Festival, because that’s gained $32 million. This year is going to look a little different, Zach, in May. In the past, we’ve had amazing support, again, from Southern Glazer’s, but also from the Food Network and the Cooking Channel. We can be here all afternoon talking about that list, but the students get to work with some fantastic culinary professionals. They love seeing the “foodie celebrities” coming in from the Food Network. They are hands-on, and we have more success stories than we can count, and some of the great opportunities they have with that. Those are just some of the really unique things that take place down here in South Florida at FIU.
Z: Awesome. One thing that I’m particularly interested in that I’m sure is continuing to evolve. I’ll be completely honest here for a minute. I considered going to a hospitality management program when I was coming out of high school and decided not to go. I went to a different university for a different program. Part of the reason was that in the spirit of time, back then, the view of the people who went to hospitality schools was that they were only interested in or were being groomed for big hotel chains, big corporate restaurant jobs. It didn’t seem to me at the time that someone who was interested in the restaurant industry but was more interested in smaller-scale operations — it just seemed I was going to be working on how do you manage a banquet dining program for 10,000 people? It was something that I wasn’t interested in. I’m sure that is not actually true and less and less true going forward. From an educational standpoint, what is it that your students are learning and are interested in doing once they get out of school?
C: Yeah, a great question. I love your story of building up, because I was in the same boat. I did go to school for hospitality and I went to culinary school and then continued on to get my bachelor’s and my master’s, all in hospitality. That’s the world that I love and that’s the industry I fell in love with. Then, I got that education bug and decided that developing people and creating great leaders of the future was more important. The biggest shift, Zach, now is students and learners with an entrepreneurial spirit like never before. A lot of today’s learners look at things a lot differently. I know exactly what you’re talking about. Back in the day, I went to school up in Ithaca, N.Y. It was the Marriotts, the Hiltons, and the Hyatt’s, and they recruited like mad. By the time I was getting ready to get out of my undergrad degree, I was like, “Wow, this is what it’s going to be.” I took a left turn and jumped on a private yacht as a chef for a couple of years because that’s just more fun that way. That’s where we’re at today where we have students that are all working now, in school, and they get that taste of what’s going on in the industry. A lot of them, again, take that entrepreneurial role. We also have FIU Startup Food taking advantage of a lot of those situations. We’re going to see this a lot more, Zach, because due to the pandemic and the shift that we’ve all seen, this entrepreneurial spirit is going to be true and they do have courses and opportunities to do that. We also offer PODs., which is called Programs On Demand. I mentioned earlier where we bring a lot of the industry and what we’ve launched ones with lots of coffee so we have those programs coming out. They get exposed to all these things and the traditional model is broken. The one-size-fits-all education when you and I were undergrad doesn’t work anymore. There is a tremendously high level of customization because it’s not just going to be well, “I like events.” OK, we get that. “Oh, I like beverages.” OK, great. Now, they can get a la carte education. Yes, like major institutions, we have majors and tracks. But right now, I’m teaching a fantastic intro course on beverages. It’s called Introduction to the Global Beverage World. In this particular course, we touch base on the spirits world, the wine world (which we’re talking about now), the beer world, and the nonalcoholic, coffee and tea. What this does is gives them a little taste, pun intended, of each one of those segments. Then, they are able to choose their own paths. If you get that, as I call the wine bug, you continue on with our fantastic wine program that was created in the 1980s by the late Chip Kassidy, where he did a phenomenal job. Right now, we are in the stages of rebooting, resetting, and redoing all that. On the beer side, we have amazing brewing science, and the story goes on from there. Also, we have our spirits management track that is part of the Bacardi Center of Excellence. What we’re noticing, Zach, is that I’m getting students from the school of engineering and from the business school and so forth that go, “No, I just thought this would be really interesting because I wanted to learn more about the beverage segment.” They probably use different terminology, but for our listeners, that makes sense. That’s what’s going on now, because it’s not, again, this one size fits all. It’s now about higher-level customization for each student. They work with advisors. It’s a lot different where you had to take specific credits. Of course, we have our core but now you have this higher level of customization, which is absolutely fantastic.
Z: That’s very cool. Let’s talk a little bit about the Bar Project 2021, because I think one of the really exciting things to me about what you all are doing is looking from an academic perspective and a research perspective, which is hard for those of us in the industry at the moment who have to be a little more focused on day-to-day survival. Focusing on what particular bars and beverage alcohol is going to look like as we move forward out of this period of the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about how this came to be and what you’re working on at the moment?
C: Yeah, absolutely. Your timing is impeccable. As you know, the Bar Project 2021 launched Feb. 3. Andrew Zimmern was our guest host. We launched this all out to our FIU students. Now, a little background before we get into the nuts and bolts of it all. With our partnership with Bacardi North America, funds were put forth to create what we call our Innovation Fund. Inside that Innovation Fund, we got incredibly creative and innovative to create Bar Project 2021. We teamed up with a great think tank group out of New York City that does a lot of our technical support. Zach, this is where it’s slightly different. This is also 85 percent on-demand. What do I mean by that? We are now in the Netflix/Prime world or mindset, particularly due to Covid. Students, as we mentioned, are slowly but surely going back to work here in South Florida, but they’ll be able to check out a module at the end of their shift or be able to binge multiple. That’s really what we’re experiencing now. I’ll tell you more about that in a minute. What we do is we spatter in about 15 to 20 percent of fireside chats, where we tap great industry leaders, some of our faculties, and they have conversations with them where the students can actually livestream and ask the questions right there. The beauty of this is we’re capturing it all for the industry, and we’ll talk more about that. We’ve already gotten into the guest experience. We’ve already done a module on guest experience, on design thinking, thinking a little bit differently. It’s a different world. We want to challenge these younger minds to tap into them and say, all right, what are they seeing? What do they think is going to be next? Of course, we talk about diversity, inclusion, how important that is in the hospitality and in the beverage industry as well. We had some great industry leaders talk about that. Now, in these coming weeks, we’re going to be moving into even more relevant topics. Our partners at Bacardi North America are going to be talking about sustainability, because you probably know Bacardi is coming out with a brand new packaging that’s going to be one 100 percent biodegradable. That is just the models. We’re really challenging the students to think, again a little bit differently. Then, of course, you and I are both wine educators, but the importance of data analytics and how we’re now using this data and consumer behaviors to make different decisions. I use that reference as wine educators because, for many years, I was always on the road or traveling the world to cruise ships and teaching people. These days, it’s all virtual. And these days, it’s all going to be done through what the better data set is. We’re going to be developing that for them as well. The new world of marketing and social impact, and the whole thing should be coming together on April 5. We already have lined up a few of our great industry judges. There are a few more in the works that are going to be challenging the students. Now, as they come to the end of this, Zach, there’s going to be five teams of four. They’re each going to have these individual challenges. They’re going to use this information they’ve gained in the past eight to nine weeks. Take their own level of creativity and innovation and put forth the solutions to the challenge at hand. Now, some of the challenges are still on the top-secret side in a good way. It’s funny how WhatsApp and these other apps out there, the word travels very fast. Industry folk, like our friend Sabato Sagaria, master sommelier, are going to be joining us. He’s an old friend. That type of industry expertise where he’s coming from, Danny Meyer and Bar Taco. They’re going to see these whole new levels of stuff going out there. You can probably tell by my passion in my voice, we’re incredibly excited about it because there’s also scholarship on the table. We’ve learned that a lot of our learners really appreciate, more than ever, the opportunity to win a scholarship. Through the Bacardi Fund, we’re able to do this. If I told you the number of money people needed, you’d be shocked how actually low it is. We take that into consideration so that each team member would be able to reach that threshold and apply that right towards their education. I think more importantly than just the scholarship, Zach, is the exposure. How often do you get to have this type of interaction with some top-notch beverage professionals out there that are doing great stuff and the camaraderie? The knowledge share that’s going to be going on through the Bar Project 2021 is absolutely fantastic.
Z: Yeah, and I think one of the things that are really interesting to me about this, in addition to everything you’ve spoken to, is how it gets people really thinking about the industry as an ever-shifting and evolving world. I think one of the things, too, that I found in my time in the beverage industry is that unfortunately, you get some people who come to it with the idea that it’s a rigid, locked way of how you do things. I think societally, we found out in 2021 that sh*t changes, and you have to be prepared for that. Also, those changes allow for a lot of innovation, development, and throwing off systems that just don’t work anymore or don’t work as well as others. Are there things that you’ve seen out of either your students or your colleagues or some of the pros that have participated in that are going to be models for hospitality and service going forward?
C: Yeah, absolutely. What I’m going to talk about is going to get fit right into a Bar Project 2021. I apologize, I forgot to mention we’re going to repackage it so it’s not as student-centric and get it out there on BacardiTeach for our industry. This is all going to be real-time, because what we’ve noticed now is that — I’m going to use my own term on this — hustlers will win. This has been an incredibly hard time. You’ve had some great guests even on your show I’ve listened to. We have our own podcast at FIU. We all have a podcast. It’s true because this is our new way of interacting and getting information out there in this crazy world we’re in. I’m a firm believer that these great operators, these hustlers that change their business model almost overnight, have gotten incredibly creative about what they’re going to do. Our students are also embracing that. They see it’s going to be this new and different world. A year ago, Zach, if we were talking about Uber Eats and Drizzly for $1.1 billion, people would think we’re absolutely crazy. Now, the students are highly aware of that. They see these new and different business models taking place almost overnight in some cases. They’re really moving forward. Probably the biggest thing, and this is through research done by Bacardi USA, also on our end, we’re going to see a return back to basics. What do I mean by that? Coming up through the ranks in hospitality, as a young food and beverage director, it was all about inventory, inventory controls. Well, no one really forgot about it. But I’ll use a very simple term here: making money. “I can make this cocktail,” which I completely appreciate. I love creativity. I love mixology. But I think we’re going to see a lot of return to basics, where we’re going to be looking at what’s on our back bar. What do we need to be successful? What do we need to have a great guest experience? And of course, what do we need to be profitable? That’s what we need to be looking at, because as you and I both know, the restaurant segment, the bar segment, is a nickel-and-dime business. If we are going to be accounting for every single nickel and dime, that’s where a lot of the stuff that will be launching on BacardTeach, again, offering to the industry is going to be incredibly useful. Every day I start talking about this, and my eyes are opening up more and going, “Oh my goodness, we’re right on track.” Because we’re seeing it across the marketplace, where we’re slowly but surely, out where you are in California to Washington State, slowly. But opening down here in South Florida, we’re outdoors where we have a lot of properties open, but what we really need to be mindful of now is people, No. 1. Then, of course, our control systems internally. How well are we working in our business as well as on our business? Got to quote my mom there a little bit. Yet, it’s true that we need to get these things in check, and we’re going to see this return to the basics. I love that because there’s nothing wrong with that, because the worst part is it’s usually what people forget first. We’re going to see that coming out in the next eight months of return plus into the new world as we know it.
Z: One last question for you, Brian, before we wrap things up here. I’m personally curious about the ideas that might be out there as many states have relaxed various things around liquor laws, both involving the sales of to-go cocktails, shipping in some cases. Every state is its own thing, which I’m sure as an educator drives you crazy. It certainly drives me crazy. In some of the smaller-scale spaces, the things that I’m particularly curious about is whether we’ll see more continued interest in and focus on takeout or to-go cocktails, cocktail delivery, things like that. Is it something that you see a real future for? What does that look like?
C: Double down on that one, Zach, because I’ve been quoted a few times already saying it, but the genie is out of the bottle. We’re not going to be able to get that genie back in, if you know what I mean, when it comes to to-go cocktails and so forth. One of the most innovative things we’re seeing now in many, many markets but I’ll just use the example of reef technologies down here in South Florida and across the U.S. where they use neighborhood kitchens, or some people call them ghost kitchens. Now, don’t be surprised if you now see the cocktail world moving in that direction as well. Everyone has their favorite corner bar back in the day, but now that could be that corner bar that you never knew was there. And within 30 minutes, your favorite cocktail could be at your door. The challenge we’re going to see with this type of new world of delivery is ensuring the best quality experience for the guest. Some brands are doing this incredibly well, as you and I both know, sustainable to-go containers can get very, very expensive. Again, ensuring that we have the best. Not all food is created equal. Not all food travels well. Think about pizza. That’s why it’s so damn good. It travels well. But at the same time, we’re going to see brands stepping out, more energy into larger kitchens, realizing that we’re going to have this amazing GreenShoots movement. I’m going to quote my good friend, Dr. Chris Mueller, that says, after a forest fire, a few weeks go by, but what starts to pop up after that devastation? There are all these amazing green shoots where this sudden burst of energy is coming from. That’s what we’re going to be seeing in the restaurant, food, and beverage and in the bar segment because of the creativity people have from being pent up for over a year now. At the same time, it will go back to the basics as we talked about earlier. However, this high level of creativity, we’re already seeing in our RTDs, ready-to-drink cocktails. We’re seeing new products coming out to the marketplace that can compete directly, because our guests and consumers these days are savvy and smarter than they were a year ago. If you think about that for a minute, it makes a lot of sense. Now everyone’s got their own habits formed or what it’s going to be. The strong are going to survive. The hustlers are going to win on that, definitely. We’re going to see a high level of creativity and quality. That’s going to be the key. The guest is willing to pay for quality.
Z: Wonderful. Well, Brian thank you so much for your time. Really, really fascinating. We’ll put some links in the episode description for some of the content that is available online for everyone. Thank you so much, really fascinating. We’ll definitely keep an eye on what you and your team at FIU are doing.
C: Amazing, Zach. Thank you so much for having me. Really appreciate it.
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Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in 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 shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beaver’s 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.