Women in Hospitality—an Interview with Joanna Carpenter

Joanna Carpenter is a singer, actor, and director, and a seasoned hospitality industry veteran with 15 years behind the bar. She has helped create cocktails for some of New York City’s most recognizable spaces and is a proud, active advocate for creating equal visibility and support for women and persons of color in hospitality. 

Photos: © Caleb McCotter — www.calebmccotter.com

So—what do you think are the biggest challenges facing women in the hospitality industry right now?

Ha. Diving right in?

I mean…

Well, I think the two biggest challenges are the lack of socio-economic equity that women have. They haven’t been given the capital foundation to be in charge or be the decision makers, so that’s a constant uphill battle. Running parallel to that is the fact that misogyny has been so deeply rooted, since the dawn of time, that the automatic assumption is that women are incapable of certain actions or making certain decisions. Those two things are always intersectional—but they’re the nuclei that make everything else, well, awful.

You have an interesting entrance into the industry, don’t you?

I was kind of always here. I started bartending fifteen years ago but I come from a small family business that was primarily owned and operated by women. And, you know what, I’d like to think that that’s where I get my work ethic from. I’ve come up in hospitality, so I know how to take care of people and I know how to make them feel loved and heard and seen. At the end of the day, that is what hospitality is about. Whether you’re on the sales side, the development side, the service side, it’s all about making people feel good and I pride myself in my ability to do just that.

Where has that landed you today? I guess I’m asking you to brag a little about the things you’ve accomplished.  

Oh gosh. Well, I helped build the New York market, from the ground up, for a brand that did not have much visibility, or street-cred, for one. I won’t bore you with my resume, but, on a larger scale, I’ve worked very hard to gain the visibility that I have as a woman of color in a space that is dominated by straight, white, men and I’d like to think I’ve achieved a lot in trying to break down those barriers. In communication, you know, being able to facilitate conversations around sexual harassment, racism, and discrimination. Calling into question why the men in power think the way they do and why they default to certain actions prior to meeting me. I’ve been very loud and proud about what is not okay and—

And how has that gone?

It’s—uh—getting better?

That good, huh. What do you think it is that allows you to speak up?

I mean, silence is complicity and, to be frank, I just don’t care enough. I don’t depend on complicity for my livelihood; not anymore. I’m not afraid of losing brand trips, or a job. I’ve been very clear about what my ethos is which has given me the opportunity to cast a light of visibility on other women of color to be seen. The ones who deserve the opportunity to be seen, to shine, that aren’t getting it, and I’m really proud of that.

Has your voice ever gotten you into any trouble?

Oh, yeah. Starting trouble? Like calling out brand directors for shitty, disappointing marketing tactics? For sure.

Should we leave it at that?

Hah. Why linger on the negative? Listen, coming up as a young bartender or, you know, working in restaurants in general, I learned very quickly that I had to scream to be heard and that I had to make bigger splashes to get even a fraction of the attention that my male counterparts did. The quality of my work was always questioned. There were a lot of dismissive attitudes that I was greeted with. That’s not to say that my cocktail creations were always brilliant, because we all have duds, but at the end of the day I have and had to fight harder to get the same amount of playing space as men.

What do you think it is that their questioning about your work?

You mean the good-ol-boys?

Exactly.

My foundation. For instance, assuming that I didn’t know anything about production and distillation when I worked for a brand. And without a foundation where can you go? There’s a lot of ways to educate people, but when you’re working from underneath the bottom line because of your gender—how are you supposed to manage nuance in your work? You know?

And how did 2018 treat you?

This past year was hard, personally and professionally. It felt like work was going to shit, personal life was going to shit—where’s the respite? When you grow up poor, you realize that stability is a fleeting thing and, if you can experience it, you’re very lucky and you need to count your blessings. It’s been very rare that I’ve experienced stability. I would say, though, that 2018 was also an incredibly beautiful year. I traveled to six different countries, I had some of the most amazing food that I’ve ever had in my life. I really learned to take care of myself and show myself love above everything. I learned to let myself be quiet and sit in the quiet and I’ve always been so terrified to do that because I don’t like what I hear in the silence. I learned to stand on my own two feet and trust my own judgment and not wait for the approval of the men in my world or for people to like me. I also stopped drinking liquor almost a year ago—January 30th, 2018.

Not drinking liquor isn’t easy—

In this industry, no, and I’ve been bullied a lot for it.

Where does that stem from you think?

I think It’s a greater indication of their relationship to alcohol than it is mine, but it still doesn’t feel good to get made fun of in front of large groups of people, especially peers. It takes me back to middle school.

You’re also my boss, so I know you’re a great leader. What makes a good leader?

The leader eats last. I think the people that work with me and for me see that and respect it. I don’t think it’s a weakness to want to do everything I can to make sure the people around me feel good and empowered. My ability to make people feel empowered around me I think is a weapon. Empowering others starts a chain reaction when they go out into the world. One where we all grow. We all get better.

Yes, please. What needs to change next for women in this industry?

Capital. Real equity and not “equality.” With capital, you have all of the power in the world. It’s the biggest foot in the door you can get. When women don’t have a financial seat at the table, they are more likely to see themselves as a disposable element and not a creator. It’s time we got a seat.

And how do you know things are actually changing? Any stories that inspire hope in you?

Yeah. There is this young bartender—who will remain nameless—she and I know each other from the brand side of things. She’s young. She just turned 30. She was busting her ass for this teeny tiny craft brand and doing as much as she possibly could and really making strides. She’s edgy, she’s funny, she has a golden heart.

Well, very shortly after I opened the bar here at Town, she posted something sort of cryptic on social media that worried me. Enough that I called her and we hadn’t talked in a while. I was like, “Hey, are you okay?” and she was like, “I’m actually on the edge of killing myself right now.”

Anyway, it turned into a two-hour conversation where I just laid on the floor in the main hall of Town Stages—everyone else was gone—just talking her off the ledge that night. She was lost and depressed and she felt like she had no resources. Therapy wasn’t helping the way she wanted. She was just a human that was in a lot of pain.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and she reached out to me about leaving this brand that she’s at. You see, part of the issue was that the environment she was in was so abusive and ridiculously underpaid. And those two things together—you can have one of the other and be fine, but when you have both of those things combined—it spins the wheels in a different way. She was like, “Jo, I want to leave this brand.” I was like, “Great, do you have anything else lined up?” and she was like, “Nope.”

A couple weeks after that she tells me she got an offer to bartend at her favorite bar in Brooklyn. The owner told her that she would take a chance on her, but she called me because she didn’t know how to bartend. She had never done it before.

I said, “Cool. When can you come to Town Stages? I will teach you everything I know.”

That was like early May? Late April? And now? She is absolutely killing it. She is becoming very, very active in the industry and I think she has a long runway ahead of her. I really believe that she is going to be a really impactful leader in the industry—and I get to say that I taught her how to bartend.

How amazing is that? She has pulled herself out of toxicity, is starting to re-align her goals and her version of self-care, and is open and transparent about the things that she’s struggled.

And your take away from that is?

Women are becoming more empowered to open up and share when they’re backed into a corner. I don’t know if that would have happened five years ago. But if we keep it up, that energy is enough to propel us forward. It gives me hope.

What advice do you have for women who want to make a career in this industry? After all, it is a career, if you want it to be, not a hobby.

A career just like any other.

Be a good person. You can learn how to make your own bitters. You can learn how to double shake. You can learn how to make the best cocktails on the planet, but if you are not a good person, your toxicity will always negate any good that you put into the world.

And to younger women: your boss will always be your boss until you are your own boss, but until then nobody defines your value. There is nobody out there that decides what your narrative is and the more women get comfortable with that idea—the better the entire industry is going to be.

What’s next for you?

The two big things at the moment are the Women’s Cocktail Collective and Art Beyond the Glass.

I am in the early-to-mid stages of development for the Women’s Cocktail Collective. Q Mixers has asked me to take the helm of what we are hoping to develop into a multi-city, national tour of cocktail pop-ups at female-led bars, starring female bartenders. We’re collaborating with 10 women-led brands—spirits, wine, beer, champagne—that will culminate at Taless of the Cocktails in July. It is a celebration of the massive amount of gifted women we have in this industry.

Art Behind the Glass NY is a massive event bringing in 14-plus different brands celebrating cocktails and the brands that fuel them but also the artists and bartenders that have this dual sometimes triple life because bartenders are creators. We very often get into this industry because it’s a means to an end but we are able to be creative and entertaining and not sit in a cubicle while making rent money. So it’s a day-long celebration of the art that exists in New York. It’s the first ever Art Beyond the Glass in New York and I’m so proud to be at the helm. We’re filling 10,000 sq. ft. with some of the most talented bartender-artists in New York for just a day of awesome.

Do you have any words for the men who might see “women-only” and “female-led” and wonder why they are being, if you can pardon my language, excluded?

I would ask them to be reflective in a quiet space of their own about what has driven women to create safe spaces for themselves that have not existed elsewhere. Nothing happens without a reason and if women need to be in a women-only safe space, we should blame the catalyst and not the solution.

Also, chill.

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Town Stages is a boutique wedding and event venue in Tribeca. Click here to learn more about the space or to book a tour.

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