With Tales of the Cocktail coming up July 17–22, OffBeat checks in with Neal Bodenheimer, proprietor of both Cane & Table in the French Quarter and Cure on Freret Street (which won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program this year) on his new role as head of the sprawling cocktail convention.
It feels like Tales of the Cocktail is known within the cocktail community almost all over the world, but that a lot of people outside that community think of Tales as an industry-only event.
It’s tough because of the sponsorship model. The reality is that there are two different budgets, and honestly, I’m only starting to comprehend this now. You’ve got on-premise budgets, which are completely focused on restaurants and places that sell your products for you. And then you have off-premise budgets, focused on liquor stores where products go directly to the consumer. Depending on the budget, sponsors have different desires. Tales accesses the on-premise budgets, so ultimately, those spirit companies want to get in front of people who will be selling their spirits—not consuming their spirits. It’s taken me a while to untangle that.
Why is New Orleans (still) the right home for Tales?
That’s a big question. A lot of it has to do with the history of the cocktail here. But New Orleans is also a very compact city and in the third week of July, there’s not much else going on. You almost have an empty canvas where the cocktail community can come in and make a city of cocktails for a week. I don’t think any other city can really offer that.
Also, Tales has taken 15 years to build. This is year 16. In some ways, as the world becomes more fractured, being able to put together an event based on community from scratch would be very difficult today. There are just so many factions within the spirits professional world, and as it becomes more specialized, Tales already has a lot of those specialties under one umbrella. When it started, it was just about trying to organize different bartenders who were doing stuff in a certain manner—sort of like the slow food movement, but for bartenders. But as the field has exploded, there are so many interests and segments of that business—lots of different facets. Tales started at the right place at the right time, and it’s grown to be so many different things. It’s hard to wrap your head around it as a local here, what it means to people all around the world. It’s humbling.
Why did you want to take Tales over?
The reason I got involved is pretty simple. Number one, it was too important for our industry to have it fail, and for the city of New Orleans it’s irreplaceable. The third week of July, if we didn’t have Tales, things would be pretty grim. For the people in the industry here in New Orleans, it would be a massive loss.
When Ann [Tuennerman] stepped down, immediately for me it was about self-preservation. For Cane & Table, specifically, I knew we’d be really affected. We’re in the French Quarter, and without this influx of people, it would be amazingly slow. So automatically I looked selfishly here, but then I kind of picked my head up and looked at my friends who have places all around the Marigny and the Quarter and the CBD and saw that this was going to affect so much more than me—every bartender and server in town who sees 18 million dollars of economic impact in a time that otherwise would have maybe 1 million.
Would you go so far as to say that Tales makes or breaks the summer for local cocktail bars?
Certainly for us. I’d definitely go that far. It’s akin to swimming a long distance and you find an island and you stop and take a break—‘This is alright’—and then you swim the rest of it. Between Memorial Day and October, basically, is a slow time for the hospitality industry. We’ll get a bump for Essence, but other than that, Tales is it. You’d think business will start to pick up in September, but it doesn’t. It’s hurricane season and the risk is too high for many visitors and conventions to want to be here in September when they know it’s likely they’ll run into at least a tropical storm, which will cost them significant dollars if they’re down here. It happens.
How is Tales different from other big meetings and conventions?
Tales brings in the perfect guests. No matter where we come from, we all speak the language of hospitality. You’ll see people speaking French and you’ll see people from China, but we quickly understand each other.
All of Tales is now non-profit, which is different from the way it was before.
Before, it was two different companies—an educational non-profit, and a for-profit management company. Nothing illegal—very common—but our goal in taking Tales over was to save the event for the city and also to give back.
Why is it important for Tales to be non-profit, through and through?
Well, there was some confusion before. People were being told it was a non-profit, but the money wasn’t being spent in that way. I prefer not to comment on it since I wasn’t involved then, but I think people want to feel good—it’s part of forming community. People want to feel like they’re doing something for the greater good. The Solomon family really wants to see this as a charitable endeavor, and so do I.
How did you guys find each other?
I’ve known the Solomon family for a few years—Gary Solomon, Jr., longer than his dad. But I first met senior through Hogs for the Cause, which was a big influence for this because of how much they’ve been able to do, getting people excited about giving back, which is what we’re hoping to do. But I met Gary through Hogs for the Cause and when we had Café Henri and I was really struggling with what to do with it, keep it open or close it—we thought we had a better understanding of the neighborhood and what the neighborhood needed, but I think that we got it wrong and should stick to neighborhoods we can better understand, honestly—my wife said, ‘Maybe you should just call Gary and see what he says.’ So I called him. I said, ‘Gary, I know you don’t know me that well, but I could really use some advice…’ And he was so generous with his time and gave me the advice I needed to hear at the time and it helped us make the decision to close this thing and move on. We could have sweated it out for years and years, but it wasn’t going the right way for us. He said we should sell it and get out and not let it take down some of the other things we were doing. It’s funny, because if it wasn’t for Café Henri, we wouldn’t have been sitting down months later talking about Tales together. He said, ‘I see Tales as part of our family legacy and your legacy. Do you want to do it together?’ And, ‘Yeah, of course!’
My original goal was to find a buyer willing to keep Tales in New Orleans. I didn’t really plan on being involved, but knowing that I was going to get to work with the Solomons, how could I not do that?
Why are you the right person?
I really don’t know! I think it’s yet to be seen whether I’m the right person. But I’m from New Orleans and I care about the future of this industry. I’ve grown with this industry and I care about it.
Is there anything about it that scares you?
Everything! There’s so much on the line and I feel the pressure to bring Tales to a better place and deliver for the city of New Orleans and the industry. Sometimes I feel like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders, but then I look back and go, ‘Okay, it’s just cocktails, everybody!’
With Cure, you won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program this spring. Do you know why you won?
I don’t know! I really don’t. I think we execute at a pretty high level and we try to treat people right, including the people who work for us. We have very little turnover on our staff, and we’ve had consistency. We haven’t chased every trend that’s come our way and we try to be true to who we are. I’m just happy to see my team recognized.
I’ve been writing a cocktail column called In the Spirit for OffBeat for five years now. So far, I’ve interviewed over 60 local bartenders. A few of them are Latino or Asian, but not a single one, as far as I know, is African American. I find that shocking.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think it’s about opportunity and mentorship. In so many ways, cocktail bartending is not the easiest way to make a living because in general, you can go to any bar and pull beer for a living and make the same dollar per drink that you make when you put your heart and soul into a cocktail. The economics of it hasn’t always been attractive to people. What we realized at Cure is that a lot of people who come to work for us come in through referral, and if you have a majority white staff and they’re referring people, they’re almost always referring white people. We had to ask ourselves—is this system of referral creating a closed network? And also, what’s the career path? We recruit from bar backs, and we were almost exclusively hiring men to be bar backs because the work’s physical, which was creating a bias, so our last two bar back hires have been women.
These are difficult questions. It’s not easy to talk about, and I’m certainly not the most qualified to talk about it.
Can you tell me more about the male/female side of bartending? More than a third of the bartenders I’ve interviewed have been women.
In part, this goes back to the beginning of cocktails—significantly more physical work. The ice was denser. I can’t tell you how many guys pulled out their shoulders and elbows.
Also, when I was coming up, as a guy bartender you couldn’t get work. You could get restaurant work, but the high-paying gigs were in clubs and they’d only hire women. You had to send in your headshot. So with the craft cocktail movement, there were more guys available who were willing to do the work, and that doesn’t get talked about a lot. It felt like there were less women than men involved, but that’s because women were involved in this other segment of the business, which was higher paying.
I wanted a club job so bad, because I knew I could make my rent in three days, but I couldn’t get those jobs because they were mainly hiring women. But as the craft cocktail industry has become more professionalized and trendy, it’s become more attractive. It’s not as if women were excluded in the beginning—you just can’t get someone who used to pull in $600 per night to come do $200 a night. The only reason to do it would be if you were passionate about the work. In the beginning, it wasn’t about money, it was about passion, and now it’s about passion and money. You can’t say that in a way that sounds good, but that’s how the history happened.
Cocktails used to be a nerdy pursuit that not everybody wanted to do, and then based on the referral system, you had white, male nerds referring other white, male nerds.
I never thought about it quite like that before, but it makes sense. Thank you.
For a full schedule of events and all things pertaining to Tales of the Cocktail, click here.