A Troubled 12 Months
A little over a year ago, Carina Soto Velasquez was announced as the first Havana Club Bar Entrepreneur of the Year. Since then, it’s been quite a ride, with 12 months that sum up the highs and lows a prominent business owner can expect over... a whole career.
It started with the opening of New Orleans Marilou, Quixotic Projects — Carina’s company — first bar outside of Paris — the project is a consulting gig. This coincided with the decision to close Glass, their very special Paris dive bar. « Businesses open, businesses close », Carina tells us. « It’s like that in this industry. Places that last, such as Candelaria, are very rare ». So that was all part and parcel of this very sector. Demonstrations, strikes and pandemic, however...
« 2019 was a very tough year », Carina explains. « With the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement, we had demonstrations every Saturday for six months. And then over the Christmas period, there were important strikes ». Among Carina’s businesses, Les Grands Verres — bang on a metro line that was always closed during demonstrations — and Hero suffered the most. Candelaria and Le Mary Celeste rode the situation better. Opened for quite a few more years, with a stronger relationship with their local community, they are the jewel of Quixotic’s crown. But even that doesn’t protect them fully in times of pandemic. « We were told one day that we would close the next. We had to furlough 100 employees over four venues. It forced us to think about the future, come up with strategies to survive ».
With French bars now reopening, tougher decisions still had to be taken. Closing Les Grand Verres is the hardest of them all. Located inside a museum, it was a big infrastructure with important costs. « With our other three bars still weak, we couldn’t justify it. We need to safeguard them », Carina says. Thankfully, they go away happy in the knowledge that all staff will be kept for the museum’s next restaurant. Things could of course always get worse, and her eyes are firmly set on October, with State aids ending in September. « The future is so uncertain, you have to carefully manage your finances, be super organized. At this stage, it’s better to make a little money reliably than to launch yourself into more ambitious projects and end up with nothing ».
So if Carina was the 2019 Bar Entrepreneur of the Year, with everything she’s learned since then, she’s probably even better now... It’s indeed a sort of year that drives home a reality we tend to forget among so many best bar lists or best bartender awards: « This industry’s incredible development was not driven by World’s 50 Best. It was driven by people who took a risk and launched bars. It’s important to recognize the figure of the entrepreneur ». And it’s important to recognize the incredible diversity of the industry, she says. « There are so many people taking risks out there in Portugal, Italy, Istanbul, Tel Aviv or Buenos Aires ». The focus should be on them, not on bigger, grander cocktail cities where most entrepreneurs are supported by important financial groups.
This outlook is also behind Carina’s decision to give half the money she received from the award to Parabere, an independent, not-for-profit organization funded by journalist Maria Cabanal, aiming to amplify women’s views and voices in the gastronomic world. Since 2015, Carina has attended Parabere Forum, the annual event the organization runs. « Maria Cabanal is a woman for whom I have tremendous admiration, and she taught me a lot. It was important for me to help her, as the forum depends on the city were its held and on donations ».
Practically, the money will be used to create a grant to help women travel and speak at the event. « You have women in Asia, Africa, South America who have fabulous agricultural projects but who don’t have the means to come to Europe. So with the grant we want to sponsor those women, who are not getting acknowledged, who are not seen so they can come and introduce their project ». This will not only give them visibility but also allow them to benefit from the whole dynamic of the event. « That’s what initiatives such as Parabere are for: to foster diversity, create an international exchange, a blend of people, where you get inspired ».
In the bar world, diversity in general and gender diversity in particular have also been a hot topic recently. It’s a new industry and the dynamic has been different — inequality has been entrenched for so many centuries in the agricultural world and, indeed, in fine gastronomy making changes harder. It’s been faster in the cocktail world. In France, specifically: « If you compare it with Germany and England, there are many more women who are getting exposure in the media, writing books, opening bars. There’s also a lot of high profile sommelier. So it’s less difficult than in the kitchen, yes, but there’s still so much work to do ». Unsurprisingly, then, for the next Bar Entrepreneur Awards, Carina looks at women and bar entrepreneurs from outside the big cocktail cities — and, above all, at truly independent figures.