On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Lynnette Marrero, renowned bartender and co-owner of Speed Rack, about how the company has shifted its focus from being an all-women high-speed cocktail competition, to being a virtual outreach and consulting program geared toward helping women in the hospitality industry adjust to the new restaurant and bar landscape post-Covid (at least until the competition can get up and running again.) By creating a mentorship program and beginning a discourse about the gender-specific issues women in the industry face, Marrero is helping to erode these boundaries and create a more equitable space.
Tune in to hear about Speed Rack’s advocacy efforts and Marrero’s predictions of what the post-Covid restaurant and bar scene may look like.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach: 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 in order to focus on a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. And today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Lynnette Marrero. She’s one of the co-founders of Speed Rack. Thank you so much for being here.
Lynnette: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Z: Our pleasure. So let’s start with: What has the last few years been like for you, and for Speed Rack? Along with that, what will it look like going forward?
L: We actually came home from our last Speed Rack event on March 17 — we came back from New Orleans. We were cresting, finishing our season off. We had one more regional left, which is our mid-Atlantic D.C. We had done our Southwest, and essentially that weekend of the event in New Orleans, everything was changing momentarily. So we went from having an event where there were going to be people in the room, then there was no sampling in the room, to then most of our brands being grounded by their companies. Then we ended up executing the event in a small bar with just the competitors who came into town on that day, as New Orleans put in new restrictions that all bars had to close by 5:00 p.m. So it was definitely insane. But that group of us who were together that last moment was actually a really great WhatsApp group chain. It was a lot of camaraderie. After that, Ivy and I had to go back to our respective bars in New York and figure out what was next. I think like everyone else, we were just trying to get our own houses in order while we figured out Speed Rack — we didn’t think about it for a bit. As an event, there was just nothing in sight that that made any sense. So we took some time off. I think it was really good for us to assess, to see where the industry was going, what was happening, what was happening to our community, trying to find any opportunities that would help support those bartenders who were out of work through partnerships with brands, or whatever we were doing. We’ve thought a bit about what we can do to help our community of Speed Rackers because we have this giant group of incredibly talented bartenders who are making waves. It really is a sisterhood. As things were happening throughout quarantine, thinking about all the social justice movements, we really wanted to think: What is the best path forward? What can we, as this event (but really a community), do? So we decided to put time and energy into crafting this mentorship program, which we’re launching this month with a bunch of amazing Women’s History Month programming. It was one of those things where for people like us at Speed Rack, where we’re used to going fast, having to take our time and be slow with what we were doing was really uncomfortable. But we leaned into it, and we feel really strong about what’s happening now, and what we can do for our community as we all re-enter whatever the world has for us.
Z: So let’s talk a little bit about those ventures and those efforts. There’s a couple of things that I’ve seen out there that you guys are launching. There’s the Speed Rack Advisory Squad. Can you talk about what that is?
L: We talked about ways to make this industry a better place, and what was lacking, and what are the things that people need right now, especially. I think there’s a lot of people in our industry taking stock, thinking about how they want to re-enter it. That just made us click into the mentorship program. So we reached out to people who are in the industry whom we think have really strong compasses and can be our incredible leaders, and who would be good mentors for this next generation of our Speed Rack family. These women are coming back into the industry — hopefully coming back into it with a stronger sense of where they want to go and what they want to do, and thinking about that intention. So we did the Speed Rack Advisory Squad, and right now we have 87 mentors from all over the industry, whether they are bartenders, bar owners, social media experts, brands, wine, beer somms, sommeliers. So we have a really broad experience. I think what we’ve realized during quarantine is that for bar professionals to really succeed, you need to know a lot more things, and you have to craft the job you want. Those mentors are now being paired pretty much this week with the mentees, of which we have just over 85. Or actually, I guess, more than that, because some mentors have taken two. They’re from all over the world. We actually put it out to our Speed Rack universe, and we have some applicants who are from Germany, from Australia, from Asia, and then a big core, obviously, from all over the United States, and some Canadian bartenders. We’ve done a few training sessions together about what being an effective mentor is. I think what we felt was that — this word gets thrown around a lot — but there’s really a process to doing it effectively. We’ve partnered with healthypour.org, which is Laura Louise Green and The Elephant in the Room, which is a really incredible group to make sure that we’re going into it with good intention, with everyone being armed with the information they need from a mentor to a mentee. Like: What are the processes? How do you start this new relationship that you have to be matched up in? What are the rules of engagement, and how do you respect each other’s boundaries? I think that’s going to make it a very strong program because everyone’s coming to the table with the same set of learnings, understandings, and expectations.
Z: Yeah, that definitely sounds very comprehensive and much more well thought out then I think sometimes mentor-mentee relationships can be — in probably any industry, but certainly in this one that I know reasonably well. You guys are also putting together a lot of content in particular this month: some panels, some Instagram live conversations. Can you talk about that? There’s a URL that we’ll link in the show description for where to find all of this information. But can you talk a little bit about some of what’s coming up, and maybe highlight a few panels or discussions?
L: For Women’s History Month, everything was looked at through the lens of the mentorship program, and the things that we wanted to amplify. So we broke Women’s History Month into four key buckets: one being mentorship, which is the pillar that we’re launching; women’s history, so really going back to some of the stories and covering some of the untold women throughout history; women in economics, which we think during this time has been a massive topic, as women have been disproportionately affected with job losses in this time, and the burden of household duties. It’s just been a really crazy time. We’ve been thinking about how we can refocus how women in economics come to play, and then women and career and development. With that mindset, we actually put a lot into finance and women in economics. Gig economies are a perfect example of how the industry changes, and for being prepared for the rainy day, and we really think it’s important to have as much information out there for these younger women coming into the industry to think about that now. One of our former Speed Rack competitors, Makeda Gebre, is doing Finance Fridays. During this time, she actually decided to go into financial advisor work, so she is going to come to it with an approach and understanding for each person of what it’s like. Every Friday at 2 p.m. EST, she’s going to hop on Instagram Live. There are different topics every week that she’s addressing. We have a couple of chats this week. We’re also geared towards what it’s like to set up your own company, and doing a side hustle. Lauren Paylor and I are going to be doing Instagram Live after they’ve watched some of the content that she actually previously produced. She and I are going to talk a little bit about some of those ins and outs, and answer some questions. We’ll have a bunch of finance so if people have financial questions, you can go to our website and put those questions there. We are also going to have a financial advisor group called the Financial Gym. The Fin Gym will answer some of those questions — so no stupid questions; you get on there and if you have a question, they will answer it. They’re going to do a big presentation about all of these topics: how to save, how to start your own company, for example, if you’re starting to do some planning work or if you started making your own mixer company during this time, should you start an S Corp or an LLC, all that stuff that no one teaches you that’s so important to learn now. So those are ones I’m really excited about. Then that whole program culminates in an Invest and Imbibe session where we actually are going to have some Samantha Katz, Bridget Firtile, Alex Beechen, Jordan Salcito, and a few other women are going to have an honest conversation of what it’s like to ask for an investor to look for people to believe in your ideas. What are the kinds of assets you would need to have for that? Where do you reach out? They’re going to demystify that idea for anyone who has a concept, or something that they want to do, and it seems intimidating to try and find an investor.
Z: In light of that, I do want to come back to a couple of things about what you’re doing through Speed Rack. But I wanted to take a moment to follow up on that a little bit. There’s been a lot of conversation throughout the entirety of the last year about the disproportionate ways in which this pandemic has affected women in the workplace. I don’t doubt that that’s true in our industry as well. Is that something that you can talk a little bit about, and what ways in which you guys are looking to try and mitigate, or help women who have had to leave? A lot of people had to leave their workplace in the beverage industry because their restaurants or bars are closed — a lot of women, in particular, had to leave for societal reasons that go beyond that. Is that something that you’re also kind of working on?
L: With all the different support — I think this is why we focus so much on economics — because it seems like a lot more women will be looking to create their next opportunity. I think systematically, why women have been affected more is because of the positions they hold in the industry. If you had more beverage directors or bar directors that were men, then they might have stayed on and were doing all the shifts and working. But if the predominant workforce that you had, who were the day workers or gig workers were women, then they all lost their jobs. Those are the slower jobs to come back. There’s a lot of talk in the industry in the last few years about having a family and being in this industry, and one of our Speed Rack academies actually will be hosted by Shirley Brooks, who is a bartender and mother in San Francisco, and she’s going to address some of those issues and some of those things in this industry that have always been hard for women in hospitality, or even any couples that want to have children and how they balance that. But I think it’s just about preparing them for entering this next economy. Just feeling comfortable asking for what they want, and the positions they want, and going out and getting them. Because I do think, on the reverse side, there will also be a lot of opportunities. I think we’ve lost a lot of people from the industry, whether they decided that this isn’t for them anymore, so those who are returning, I think I’d like to see them return with just a bit more focus on where they want to go and what they want to do. If we can empower them with the tools to ask for that, then that’s what we’re hoping we could do.
Z: Absolutely. I want to take this opportunity to pick your brain a little bit, since you mentioned this whole topic about what comes next in the drinks world, and especially in the bar world, and it’s a conversation that my co-host Adam Teeter and I have had a few times on the podcast. It’s on a lot of people’s minds, especially as we are starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel as comes to vaccinations and things like that. One theory that I’ve had is that when bars do open up more fully, depending on where you are in the country and in the world, I’ve come to believe that what a lot of people are going to be looking for in a bar experience is really that: an experience. The drink is going to be part of it. But it’s going to need to be something that goes above and beyond what they’ve been able to get at home because for many people, this last year has been a time of discovering home bartending. Does that ring true to you — and either yes or no, whichever way the answer is in your eyes — what do you see? As someone who is a bartender yourself, what are you looking at moving forward?
L: Absolutely. I think it’s going to be kind of both. You’re going to either want to go to that dive bar you’ve been missing and get pints and shots, but it’s more like the mid-tier, right? So it won’t be good enough to just be good enough. You have to really— I think, to your point — create things that people can’t do at home. If you’re going to have an Old Fashioned on the menu, it should be a really cool riff on an Old Fashioned that takes some sort of effort that they can’t do at home. I think it’s the same thing with any classics; you’re going to have to really step them up. We’re thinking about the Llamas. Lucky for us, the kind of food we’re doing isn’t something that people are just making at home. They’re not just whipping up Peruvian food, so I think that actually helps us. But we just reopened Llama San on Monday, and head bartender Natasha Bermudez and I were just thinking about what we can do that’s still unexpected. What still brings them? Anything we put on has to be just that extra level that’s going to take them two or three steps too many that they’re not going to do it, but we can deliver it to them with execution and flawlessness that makes them think about it. I think that’s just going to be the next step for everything. You’re going to see that people are going to want to have something that wows them. It’s also going to be a challenge for business models to adjust to peoples’ new habits. Are people going to eat at home a little bit more with friends, then go out for a cocktail? What’s that new pattern going to be like? If they’ve been used to being at home and doing a little bit more, they might be thinking about where they want to spend their money. In order to lure them in, you’re gonna have to really think about attracting them in a different way.
Z: I’m sure that this is something that,is, again, going to vary based on where people are — but it does seem like ways in which bars and bartenders can maybe continue to be a part of that at- home experience, whether it’s with cocktail kits, to-go cocktails, mixers, etc. It does seem like it’s going to be a part of the industry for some time. I imagine that’s something that you’re thinking about, and the women that you talk to and connect with via mentorship programs. Does that feel like a part of the industry that will remain vital?
L: Absolutely. I think people are comfortable with getting these kits and things like that. Cocktail kits are so different in every place. To your point, it really depends on locality. I do think in some places it really helped bring craft cocktails to an audience who wasn’t thinking about them. That might be really effective, and that would still be a part of it. As we go forward, I think in places like big metropolitan cities, people really want to get back to those places that make it so unique. I think like Chicago, New York, all these places that are culinary hubs. What’s so great about them is being able to access all this amazing food and drink in one city. I think people will actually be more thoughtful about where they spend their dollars because they want to support the places that they really missed, the things that felt that they were part of the community. Like with those to-go drinks — maybe a bar or restaurant was able to really connect and keep their clientele engaged via those opportunities. That will create some sort of loyalty that will come at the other end of all of this. You’ll see that guest relations will have been stronger.
Z: Absolutely. I have one last question for you. Coming back to Speed Rack a little bit more — the mentorship programs and the educational components are wonderful and are big parts of what you are doing going forward. But the competition itself is also kind of at the core of Speed Rack. What’s the state of it for 2021? Are you looking at trying to put something together for later in the year? Do you still have to wait and see? For people who are either past competitors or interested, what can they look forward to?
L: We have committed to finishing Season 9 in whatever form we can do it. We pretty much had one more regional to do, which would give us two more competitors. We haven’t really figured out how we’ll manage that process. But for the competitors and the wild cards that did win, we’re hoping to keep an eye on what guidelines are and see what it would be reasonably safe to be able to bring them together to compete, and whether or not that means they would be competing in a closed-circuit space where everyone’s distanced. We’re trying to figure that out now, but the barrier is really about people in every state being able to have vaccinations for hospitality.
Z: It’s definitely still a work in progress, but it’s nice to know that you’re hoping to pick up where we left off almost a year ago now.
L: It’s really about having them travel. In certain places, there are going to be restrictions that are lifted in the summer for outdoor events. If you have everyone distanced and it’s outdoors, we can make it happen. But we’re just bringing so many people together from different places, so that’s where the concern is.
Z: Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. I look forward to finding out more about Speed Rack and the various things that you all are doing now, and I hope to have you back on later this year at some point when we can talk about fully reopening your bars, because that would be an exciting and fun thing to talk about. I think we talked to Erica almost a year ago now for one of the first ones of these we did, which was all about what it was like closing your bar. It would be great to be able to kind of close the loop on that one in a much more positive way.
L: Fair enough. I think we’ve learned so much about ourselves this year. It’s an interesting time, but I’m always optimistic about the future.
Z: Well, again, Lynnette, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to talking to you down the road.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating on review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or whatever it is you get. It really helps everyone else discover the show. 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 Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are 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.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.