In the craft cocktail world Dushan Zaric is a legend. You may not recognize his name, but he’s one of the cocktail revival’s great leaders. Simply put, you’re drinking a lot better these days because of this guy. His wildly influential and acclaimed New York City bar, Employees Only (a.k.a. EO), has grown so big that it will soon open outposts around the U.S. and even in Singapore. And his success doesn’t stop at bartending. He also co-founded a spirits company, The 86 Co., that has become a go-to brand for craft bars.
But it all started to unravel for Zaric a few days ago, when some Facebook posts relating to Employees Only sparked a controversy within the industry that has played out publicly on social media. Amid accusations of misogyny and the threat of a boycott of The 86 Co., on Tuesday he stepped down from the spirits company he started.
This whole incident began last week when EO’s principal bartender Steve Schneider (himself star of the documentary Hey, Bartender) posted a flyer on Facebook seeking job applicants for the new Singapore location, which read:
NOT JUST A BOYS CLUB. One of New York City’s most iconic bars, Employees Only, is launching its first international location in Singapore. We are looking for badass cocktail waitresses and supervisors to join our team! We want individuals who are driven by providing guests with an unforgettable service experience. We offer the chance to learn from an international team, overseas work exchange opportunities, and a damn good time at work.
This didn’t go over too well in a swath of the cocktail community. Criticism came hard and fast from other bartenders who condemned it on Facebook. But to supporters of EO and outside observers, this appeared to be much ado about nothing—the post doesn’t seem offensive on its face. But the flyer hit a nerve with women bartenders in particular. It hinted at an insidious bias that’s been in the craft cocktail scene since its modern re-emergence, which Playboy cocktail columnist Jeffrey Morgenthaler wrote about in 2014 when he outlined the problem:
As I moved through the ranks into craft cocktail bartending, I found myself surrounded by more and more men. It seemed to me that during this sea change in the cocktail world, men and women were being assigned very specific places: Men were bartenders, younger guys were bar-backs and women were cocktail waitresses.
It’s this gender bias that Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero, founders of the women-only bartending competition Speed Rack, have spoken out about in recent years, openly addressing the cocktail community’s glass ceiling. “When I came to New York, I had a hard time getting a cocktail bartending job. They only wanted me as a cocktail waitress,” Mix previously told Playboy. “This is one of the reasons why you don’t see as many women bartenders. The trajectory of a bar-back to a bartender is easier to maneuver than the trajectory of a cocktail waitress to a bartender.”
You may now be thinking, wait, I see women bartenders all the time. But there’s a schism in the industry. “Women tend to work more in the establishments that are highly sexualized,” Marrero previously told Playboy. “Ivy and I could easily go to the Hamptons every summer, wear a half-top and make a shitload of money bartending on the beach.”
But it’s much harder for those same women to land jobs at the more prestigious cocktail bars like Employees Only; the ones feted with awards and magazine profiles. “Look back to a few years ago: Cocktail bars were just taking off,” Mix said. “Everyone was harkening back to this pre-Prohibition-style speakeasy. Women didn’t fit that speakeasy persona. We don’t, hopefully, grow mustaches, and in my opinion suspenders look ridiculous when you have boobs.”
Marrero adds that “popular culture embraced the idea, like Ivy said, of the mustached bartender with the suspenders. New York was all stern and boozy and hard. So women didn’t exactly fit that mold.”
With his flyer, Schneider unwittingly tossed a match into this pool of gasoline. And when the bartenders on social media saw Schneider strike that match, this shit was officially lit.
Some even suggested the placement of the cocktail coupes in the image was telling:
Others were not so surprised that this came from Employees Only, a bar that has employed very few women in its 12-year history:
Now, EO had its defenders; the people who thought this was all blown out of proportion. And others who commented that maybe the criticism didn’t understand Singapore’s bar culture, and thus were missing some context.
This is where Zaric comes into the picture. In the midst of the backlash, he and Schneider made comments on Facebook that only further fanned the flames of discontent. They would later say their comments were just attempts at humor, but to others they came off as tone deaf:
(Note: We have shielded the identities of the individuals who made their comments in private.)
Zaric and Schneider would soon realize just how serious the situation was. People began proposing a boycott of not only EO, but also The 86 Co., which shares two of the same owners as the bar. For The 86 Co., an indie spirits company built on word of mouth and street cred, a boycott by the biggest names in the bar world could cripple its business.
When reached for comment on Thursday, a spokesperson for Employees Only told Playboy that EO “has never used discriminatory hiring practices and does not plan on ever doing so. Aspiring EO bartenders of all backgrounds, shapes, sizes, and genders, are welcome to apply for our apprenticeship program and always have been. We have employed women behind our bar in the past. Due to our extremely high employee retention rates, we have had little room for recruitment over the years.”
Schneider, who was en route to Singapore as the controversy swirled, took down the flyer and posted an apology and an explanation for the wording, saying they were already interviewing both men and women for bar positions, but no women had applied for the jobs listed in the flyer yet. He said the team hoped to attract diversity for that location:
An EO spokesperson expanded on the sentiment to Playboy, saying that the flyer in question “was created, ironically, because through their local recruiting efforts they were receiving exclusively male applicants and eagerly sought more diversity for all positions. Obviously, in retrospect, we acknowledge that this effort was poorly executed and regret the harm and offense caused among our beloved bar community. For that we’re deeply sorry.
"As we understand that this is a sensitive issue with many in our industry, we are definitely looking to raise our own awareness and welcome any meaningful discussions that may come our way.”
Zaric, however, who is considered a leader in this community, took it further. On Tuesday, he stepped down from The 86 Co., in what was presumably a move to take heat off of the brands and their investors:
His friends and followers were stunned. Zaric has been in the industry for decades, has written two books and speaks at cocktail conferences around the world. Under his leadership, EO has become one of the world’s great bars. In 2014, Zaric was named Best Bar Mentor at the industry’s leading award ceremony. His stepping down was especially puzzling to supporters because he wasn’t even the Employees Only co-owner tasked with spearheading the Singapore project. And now, those same supporters resent the people and the protests that cost Zaric his job.
Despite Zaric stepping down, a larger issue still remains: Women deserve an equal opportunity to work behind the bar and not just be waitresses. And they definitely deserve the chance to earn Employees Only’s coveted, white bartender’s jacket.
Alyson Sheppard writes about bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep
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