Ara Carvallo

27 Mar. 2019
The progressive agenda of Barra Mexico's co-founder

Since its first edition in 2015, Barra Mexico has successfully positioned itself as one of the most important events of the global cocktail calendar. It’s quite remarkable — back when they started, Mexico was hardly seen as a cocktail powerhouse. This year’s edition promises to be both the biggest and cleanest yet. Ara Carvallo, co-founder and co-owner of the event with Paula Garcia, told us a little bit more about the challenges they faced on the way and her passion for sustainable causes.

Ara was born in Mexico, but moved to Europe aged 16, where she first discovered the world of hospitality. She did it the usual way — picking up empty glasses in an Irish pub. Although this particular experience didn’t last long — « I got fired because I dropped all the glasses by accident », she laughs — she persevered. It’s however not until she moved to Amsterdam a couple of years later that things really started, she says. There, she got a job at Hard Rock Café. Now much maligned, chains such as Hard Rock Café or TGI Friday’s were back then, in many cities, the only cocktail places with set standards and procedures. « It’s very strict. You have a training program and you have to learn more than 300 cocktails by heart. It’s the old school way »

She took to it like a duck takes to water. Very quickly, she became a trainer — and was even sent to do the opening in Bogota. After working in more cocktail bars around Amsterdam, brands came calling. « When Bols set up their museum, I became the bar manager there ». With a lot of events and around 50000 visitors per year, that was a lot of work. But although Ara was making her way into this world, she didn’t see herself in it long-term. « While I was working in bars, I was studying finance — I have two masters in financial management — and I always thought I was going to work for a bank after my master », she recalls. And she did. For two whole weeks. « I called Bols’ CEO and asked him if he had something for me. I hated my job. People working in banks are made of different stuff. I really missed the type of people working in the bar industry. » With business acumen and bartending experience, she became a Global Brand Manager for the Dutch company. 

In 2014 she left and went back to Mexico, a country she had only really known as a child. « I didn’t know anything about the way of doing business in Mexico. I came from a Dutch culture. I was very naïve ». One night, around a drink or two (or three), Ara and Paula Garcia had a lightbulb moment: they would organise their own barshow in Mexico City. « We suffered a lot », she told us. She had to reprogram herself — « in the Netherlands it’s one meeting for an hour and you have an answer; in Mexico it takes much longer ». Also, while Dutch people are sometimes known to be a bit too direct, she had no idea that in Mexico, yes sometimes meant no: « a negative answer is seen as rude, so we thought everyone was enthusiastic about our project but they were just being polite… » The first edition wasn’t easy, but it took place, in part thanks to an outstanding Mexican quality: improvisation. « Things that can’t be done in other cultures can be done last minute in Mexico. You don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens ».

Over the years, the barshow didn’t only become, as we already mentioned, one of the most important cocktail rendez-vous in the world: it became the most progressive. « We want to bring a change to the industry. Last year the event was completely plastic-free and we also focused on recycling », Ara explains. This is not surprising — Ara also holds a degree in environmental sciences — and has borne fruit. She mentions that a lot of the leading bars in Mexico are now plastic-free. « We believe our activism will inspire not only bartenders in Mexico but also around the world. » This year’s edition is going to go one (big) step further: « We will be carbon neutral. The trade show industry is very polluting — the plastic, the flights, building the stands — and we will make sure our carbon footprint is compensated ». This means, for example, that they will offset the environmental cost of a transatlantic flight by planting a certain number of trees. 

Although the green attitude behind Barra Mexico is the one that will make the headlines, the barshow is also very progressive in other respects. Among other things, they have a collaboration with an association for people with disabilities. « We had people of disabilities at our front desk. They were the face of the show, our ambassadors », Ara says. She also underlines the importance of a progressive agenda beyond the show. « Mexico is a classist country. There is a lot of discrimination against service people. Bartenders were seen as second class citizens because they live on tips. » The buzz around cocktails is changing this, bit by bit: « Bartenders own their bar, they are interviewed, appear in medias, they are seen as important ».

Believe it or not, but when she’s not planning the next edition of Barra Mexico, Ara actually has a day job. It fits her to a tee: most of the year, you’ll find her in Amsterdam at Distill Ventures, « the world’s first drink accelerator », where she helps new brands go « from selling a few bottles to a hundred thousand. I need all my experience in this business to help them grow quickly and sustainably ». Although she understandably wouldn’t reveal anything about her votes as a judge for the Havana Club Entrepreneur Awards, we really wouldn’t be surprised if she placed special emphasis on sustainability and social responsibility…

François Monti