Changing the Bar

22 Jul. 2020
Kelsey Ramage thinks about the future of an industry

Much as many people think only old and sick people die from COVID-19, there’s a tendency to think that only businesses that were going to fail anyway will disappear because of the pandemic. Wrong on both counts. In the bar world, the new coronavirus is indifferently killing failing bars and successful ones. Or bars that were finding their feet, as Kelsey Ramage, One to Watch at the 2019 Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur Awards, told us days after announcing that Supernova Ballroom, the bar she and partner Iain Griffiths had launched in Toronto last September wasn’t going to reopen. 

« It was gaining momentum, we had spent a lot of money redoing the food menu and the drinks and March was actually our record month », Kelsey tells us. But, as a venue with a party vibe and a 250-guest capacity, the current context makes it very complicated for the numbers to make sense. « There’s no way we would have been able to make it work », she adds. At the moment, she also explains, patio bars are opened in Toronto, but even those ones, supposedly more adapted to today’s reality, are losing money. « You really need to sit down and see if you’re reopening for the sake of reopening. Is it smarter to wait this through? » Or, as she and Iain did, to cut your losses.

Make no mistake: though this decision was taken numbers in hand, no romanticism allowed, it’s still one Kelsey struggled — and is still struggling — with. « I’m still processing it, it catches up with you, it comes and goes ». Even before closing Supernova, has been talking about feelings of grief running through an industry previously quite unfamiliar with it — or rather quite reticent to confess to any mental health issue. « I’m happy to be open about it, because I think it’s important to hear those stories, we need to be honest and have each others backs ». 

Throughout lockdown, Kelsey has kept herself busy with Dolly Trolley, the drinks delivery arm of the Supernova operation. It’s a line of non-alcoholic mixers that can be served with spirits or enjoyed just with soda water. This will survive Supernova’s closure. She’s also been working with Pernod Ricard on The Bar World of the Tomorrow, an extensive training program that she describes as « all encompassing ». « It’s similar to the sustainability module we’ve created but it will cover techniques, responsible drinking, bar set up, conscious drink making. It’s meant to become an industry standard. I’m very happy that Pernod Ricard is investing so much in this because that’s one part of our industry that’s a bit lacking. We kind of learn on the job, and bar trainings are generally city specific instead of global », she explains.

Behind this training program there’s the idea that a lot of what is taught young bartenders need to be updated — and needs to go beyond the usual drinks history / classics / traditional bar techniques dynamic. This will be a collective work and Kelsey is obviously focusing on sustainability. « We need to start looking more towards locality. It’s a difficult thing to train because it’s so city specific but I think getting bartenders and especially new bartenders to think about ingredients more like a chef is important. In a way, it’s a natural progression. You have the classic cocktails as your framework and then you need to look at local ingredients and things that are organically grown », she says. « But that’s just one part of it — there will also be modules about how to stand properly, how to take care of yourself… It’s forward-thinking and that’s what the industry needs now. »

Last year, when Kelsey travelled to Cuba for the Bar Entrepreneur Awards, she says she felt a bit like one of the ‘juniors’ on the trip, other guests having much more of an experience owning bars and businesses. More than receiving the actual award, she says that what she really appreciated about the experience was « sharing ideas with people who are in the same boat. It’s an opportunity to create a community of other bar owners ». Junior or not, it’s quite obvious that Kelsey will play an important part in shaping the future of the bar industry. One year on, she’s still definitely one to watch. But who does she think the judges of this year’s edition should be watching? « I would like to see people who have a vision for this industry and want to change it, as opposed to just opening a bar for the sake of opening bar », she tells us. She also speaks of the need of a broader representation of generally forgotten collectives such as black business owners or the LGTBQI+ community. The future of the bar will be built with an eye beyond the bar.

François Monti