Ash Nycole
Photo of Ashley Nycole Smith bartending at The Shrine in 2012

The People is a section of The TRiiBE for opinion pieces on trending topics regarding Black Chicago. In this op-ed, former Chicago bartender, Ashley Nycole Smith, shares the importance of supporting what she calls the Black bartenders renaissance.

I truly believe in the saying, “go where you’re celebrated, not tolerated.” That’s why I left Chicago, where I worked as a bartender for six years, to serve up drinks in West Hollywood – where being Black and a bartender isn’t a foreign concept. Chicago is currently the fifth most racially and economically segregated region in the nation, according to a Metropolitan Planning Council and Urban Institute study released in March. Unfortunately, my fellow Black brothers and sisters behind the bars in Chicago feel the brunt of this segregation on a daily basis.

Look at Rosebud Restaurants in Chicago. The Italian chain recently agreed to pay out $1.9 million to settle a race discrimination suit, which alleged that Rosebud refused to hire African Americans and that management used racial slurs when referring to African Americans. Additionally, Bottled Blonde in River North recently came under fire for their dress code, which excluded patrons from wearing anything from Jordans and Air Force Ones to visible tattoos and baggy clothes. Sound pretty anti Black, right?

This type of racism isn’t new to Black bartenders like myself. I could fill two or three books with stories of the ever-changing dress codes and racial profiling created to keep us out. It sucks. For those of us who came into this industry, wanting to create positive vibes and experiences for people looking to have a good time, it’s easy to lose faith in people – and I’m not solely speaking about bar owners and managers. When a drunk patron calls me a “nigger bitch,” or I get turned away at the door of my own job on my night off because of racist bouncers, it chips away at my optimism.

Brown at the Bombay Sapphire “Most Imaginative Bartender” competition at Godfrey Hotel Chicago

But, as always, Black people tend to create opportunity in times of darkness. A change is coming, thanks to a community of Black bartenders in Chicago who are reviving an appreciation for mixology to help blur the lines of segregation.

Ariel Neal. Alexis Brown. Josh Davis. Sherri Bradley. Lisa Nicole. Jarmel Doss.

These Black bartenders – and so many more – are not only excelling in Chicago bars but also rocking cocktail competitions. Neal and Brown joined forces to create “Causing a Stir,” a forum and movement whose sole mission is to literally cause a stir in the bartending world. The group encourages free thought, networking and taking control of your brand as a bartender.

Also, Brown recently participated in Bombay Sapphire’s “Most Imaginative Bartender” regionals, where she showed off the creativity that has made her the standout mixologist she’s known to be across the country.

Davis and Bradley are holding down The Bureau Bar and Velvet Lounge in the South Loop. They’re entrepreneurs, too. Both started their own mobile bartending services, where you can hire competent bar staff for your next shindig.

Lisa Nicole is doing great things as lead mixologist at The Promontory in Hyde Park.

Doss is kicking ass as assistant bar director at The Aviary in the West Loop.

There are awesome people of color holding down the Black-owned bars at Vice District and M Lounge. The renaissance is here, guys. We have to support our own.

Smith bartending at a private Bacardi event in Los Angeles

When I was coming into my own as a bartender in Chicago six years ago, I didn’t have a support system like this. I didn’t have a community of people cheering me on and wishing nothing but the best for me. I didn’t know about the USBG (United States Bartenders’ Guild) or how to get involved in cocktail competitions. My Chicago peers are pushing the boundaries of what people expect from Black bartenders. We’re more than Long Island Iced Teas and Blue Motherf*ckers. We’re masters of our craft.

By turning your attention to the greatness of Black bartenders in Chicago, you have less time to dwell on the people and places that don’t accept our skin color. Let’s, instead, revel in this blossoming Black bartenders renaissance. I would love to see people following their favorite bartenders like they follow DJs in Chicago. I would love to see people going to cocktail competitions to cheer on Black Chicago bartenders.

I love Chicago, and I want to see my bartenders win. Please appreciate and support them before they skip town, like I did.

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