Copper & Kings wants to help low-wage workers with cocktails
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The classroom was set with samplers of cordials and simple syrups.
Eron Plevan had the group of aspiring bartenders taste through a series of sugar-heavy mixers flavored with grapefruit, ginger and lavender. They’d already been through a rigorous application process that cut more than 170 hopefuls down to 14 in the “Ideal Bartender Program” at Copper & Kings.
This lesson on syrups was one of the final chapters in a free 15-week class designed to give lower income individuals a shot at a bartending career.
The sweetest thing at the class, though, wasn’t in one of those syrup glasses.
It was the sound coming from Yvette Allen’s phone. On the screen was a video of her teenage son singing opera, and the tone was nearly as pure as the proud mother’s beam.
He was just days away from graduating high school and a few flips of the calendar from leaving home to study opera at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Allen was bracing for her own new chapter, too. She already had plans to use the free time that comes with being an empty nester to help her son with school, and the skills she’d leave the Copper & Kings course with could set her up to pick up a third job.
She already has a job as a paralegal and another one in health care, but even so, she’s ready to take on more.
“That’s the least that I can do is make it easy for him at college,” she said. “I want him to succeed.”
A chance at more is what Joe Heron, the brandy distillery’s owner, was hoping to give the community when his company launched the free bartending school last year. Louisville is growing, he said, but it’s not taking everyone along for the ride.
There is development happening on the West End, specifically in the Portland and Russell neighborhoods, but progress and opportunity hasn’t come as quickly as it has for the east side of town.
Heron’s distillery, 1121 E. Washington St., is in the middle of that activity. The Butchertown neighborhood is slated for a $200 million makeover complete with a 10,000-seat soccer stadium, at least one hotel, offices, retail and housing.
The Omni Louisville Hotel in downtown and the AC Hotel by Marriott in NuLu both opened this year and with them brought new bars and new craft cocktail menus.
In a matter of about five years the East Market District has gone from being a place only artists paid attention to, to a funky destination for bars and restaurants with the trendy name of NuLu.
The Kentucky International Convention Center is slated to reopen this summer and give downtown a newfound ability to welcome event crowds like it never has before. Those people will be looking for bars for entertainment, and those bars will be looking for people to mix drinks.
The Copper & Kings program aims to spread the wealth the region is seeing from the uptick in the beverage world to the people who might not otherwise have access to it.
A good bartending program can cost a few hundred dollars. Cryssy Newton, one of the participants in the class, had looked into taking one. She’d worked in restaurants before, and she knew no matter how poorly the business did in a night, the bartender always seemed to make money.
The kind of classes she was finding, though, either didn’t fit what she was looking for or wasn’t what she could afford.
But Heron’s program is free if you need a boost and you’re willing to work for it.
“Going from job to job and going to different jobs is just living paycheck to paycheck,” Newton said. “With steady pay from bartending and being able to do it every night... it will make a big, big difference.”
The class’s name dates back a century and is a nod to an African-American bartender from Louisville. Tom Bullock went on to work at the prestigious St. Louis Country Club and advanced so far in the industry he eventually published a book on the craft, “The Ideal Bartender.”
It’s a story of diversity and hard work, and that’s something to be celebrated, Heron said. The class doesn’t discriminate on race, gender, religion or age but does emphasize that today’s bar industry needs more people like Tom Bullock.
“The ideal student would be someone who hits the ground running and works through adversity,” Plevan said. “Someone who gains a lot of experience working in a lot of different places, and then eventually gets to the point where they can give back, too.”
So Copper & Kings did social media campaigns, had face-to-face meetings with libraries and passed out flyers at career fairs. Plevan whittled about 40 applications down to the inaugural class of 15.
The class welcomed college students, bartending hopefuls and a few who had moderate experience in the industry but were looking to advance their skills.
The real need, though, started appearing when round two launched earlier this year.
By that point Darci Stuhlman, a graduate of the first Ideal Bartender class, had moved from her role as a tour guide at the distillery into a leadership role for the program.
She spent three days leaving applications, pens and posters in businesses on the West End. She stopped in barber shops, restaurants and chatted with anyone who might know someone the program could help.
They did a spot on the local news calling out for applications and again worked with agencies, such as the Kentucky Career Center, to connect with workers who could benefit the most from the free class.
That campaign brought in more than 170 applications. Copper & Kings never asked the candidates about their income or neighborhoods, but Stuhlman listened in the interviews for candidates who talked about things like temp jobs and living from paycheck to paycheck.
In the mix, there were parents who keep food on the table with less than $11 an hour, and people who juggle several jobs just to pay the bills.
And then there were others, such as Allen, who saw the class as an opportunity — even a gamechanger.
“I prayed for this,” she said. “It was a really big deal.”
Stuhlman has never taken a formal census, but in this second round, she estimates at least 40 percent of the class is from the west side of the Ninth Street Divide.
The distillery isn’t alone in its efforts to reach into the west end.
Businesses, such as Kroger, are also active in trying to put people in need in jobs, said Natasha Cummings, business services manager, for the Kentucky Career Center, who helped Stuhlman with the recruitment process.
It was the level of sophistication and the potential earnings that really caught her attention with Copper & Kings program.
“The average wage was $20-30 an hour,” Cummings said. “People can take care of their families and sustain their homes with that type of a paycheck.”
With this training, workers are learning the skills in the distillery and not in a community center. With just 15 people in the class, each student also has more individualized attention from instructors.
They also have connections. While the curriculum and the idea came out of Copper & Kings, Heron’s quick to call the free program a “generosity of spirit.”
Professionals from throughout the industry have chipped in their time and resources for the cause. Experts at Against the Grain taught about beer and a sommelier from Vintners Select handled the lesson on wine. Players from Brown-Forman, Meta, Moonshine University, The Silver Dollar and The Pearl have also helped.
Now when the students go out into the industry, they’ve got a small network of professionals they can tap into, Heron said.
Allen has already taken advantage of that.
She was sending emails to the wine expert just hours after that lesson, and she was humbled when she heard back. Allen is already thinking about what kind of training she can take after the class to advance her wine skills, and the sommelier was willing to answer her questions.
That’s the kind of drive and initiative that Stuhlman and Plevan look for in the application process.
The class itself is only a three-hour weekly commitment, but there’s homework, optional skills labs and extra credit for volunteering at the distillery’s events. Newton dedicates at least two hours a night to practicing mixing, shaking, stirring and pouring at home, and another hour or so studying her textbook.
Sometimes they learn as many as three cocktails in a lesson, and keeping the ingredients and measurements straight takes time. It’s just like learning a new seasonal cocktail menu, Plevan said. You’ve got to master it fast, and you’ve got to retain it.
It’s a heavy work load, but it’s worth it to Newton. She’s worked retail, and she’s been a waitress. She’s spent some time in temp jobs. For the first time, though, she’s really seeing a future.
Just like she’s got everything in her bar kit to make a twist on an amaretto sour for her Ideal Bartender final in June, she feels like she’s finally got the tools to move forward.
It’s been a bumpy ride the last few years, but she’s looking forward to coming out of this strong and smooth. Just like a good drink.
City Living reporter Maggie Menderski covers retail, restaurants and development in downtown and its nearby urban neighborhoods. Reach Maggie at 502-582-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/maggiem.
Information from: Courier Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com