Futures

Claire Sprouse Wants to “Listen. Unlearn. Listen Some More.”

August 10, 2020

Story: Tatiana Bautista

Art: Nick Hensley

Futures

Claire Sprouse Wants to “Listen. Unlearn. Listen Some More.”

August 10, 2020

Story: Tatiana Bautista

Art: Nick Hensley

Before the pandemic, Sprouse was already on a mission to forge a more equitable, sustainable bar community. Now, her plan is more urgent and vital than ever.

“I decided a long time ago that with the access of the internet, proprietary ideas don’t really exist anymore,” says Claire Sprouse, bartender-owner of Brooklyn’s Hunky Dory. “So, I’ve always felt like an open-source approach to pretty much anything I do is not only necessary, but also easier for everybody.”

This community-driven spirit is at the heart of several projects under Sprouse’s belt, from evolving the practices of her sustainability-minded bar and restaurant in Crown Heights to organizing with hospitality collective Food Issues Group (FIG) to, most recently, launching her own climate-focused initiative, Outlook Good.

“I wanted to create a platform to not only educate, but to empower and shine light on those who are doing the work,” she says of the impetus behind Outlook Good, which examines climate change through a lens of equity and racial justice. In April during New York’s statewide shutdown, she launched the first issue of Optimistic Cocktails, a digital collection of bartender-sourced drink recipes built around food waste—like spent pineapple rinds repurposed to make tepache or banana peels incorporated into cinnamon syrup. Several hundred copies have sold, with the proceeds directly benefiting workers, including the contributing bartenders’ staff funds as well as organizations like Centro Legal de la Raza and Fair Food Program, which provide relief for undocumented workers.

Since reopening Hunky Dory for outdoor dining in July, Sprouse has instituted incremental changes to her practices to adapt to the current climate without losing sight of the bar’s sustainable ethos, even when those two forces seem at odds. Recently, she made the decision to switch their serving ware to single-use plastics. “Ultimately, we had to choose between the safety of the employees or using dishes that we can bring back and wash and reuse,” she says. “I chose to prioritize that safety, which I think was the right decision for us,” adding that she still sources materials she can stand behind, such as disposable cups made with fully recyclable plastic.

Her commitment to sustainability rejects the notion that it’s a one-dimensional issue, and instead brings employee equity to the forefront of the dialogue. Central to this view was her decision to eliminate gratuities upon Hunky Dory’s reopening last month. It’s a change that she hopes will provide more financial stability for her employees, “instead of letting random strangers dictate that,” she adds.

As the conversation surrounding the future of bars and restaurants continues to evolve, Sprouse is hopeful that a sea change is on the horizon, specifically one that rethinks the industry’s dynamics in order to prioritize employees. “Do I want all the bells and whistles and fancy restaurant meals if it comes at the expense of people who are making the food and serving me? I think it’s something we all need to ask ourselves.”  

Here, Sprouse tackles our questionnaire, sharing her daily routine in a sentence, the best thing she’s ever drank and what she wants to be when she grows up.

Current occupation:
Bartender/owner, Hunky Dory; founder, Outlook Good.

Current mission statement:
Wow, that’s a hard one. It’s probably something simple along the lines of, “Listen. Unlearn. Learn. Listen some more. Support where needed.”

What do you want to be when you grow up?
Well-rested.

Describe your daily routine in one sentence:
I’m very boring and always hungry—my daily routine is choreographed around what and when I will eat; the empty space around that is filled with work, friends, reading and usually bookended with coffee and wine.

Your greatest accomplishment to date?
Opening Hunky Dory. Our first year was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my entire life and I’m really proud of what we all brought to the space and neighborhood.

Biggest failure?
Same—that first year at Hunky, but from a personal accountability level. I wanted to offer the world to our team, through education, leadership and community, but I was just so exhausted and spread way too thin. In a big way, they were the ones who truly stepped up so that I could retain some amount of sanity through all of those very long days. Even though some of them have since moved on, they are still part of the Hunky team in a way and I still plan on making good on those original goals.

The number one thing you want to eradicate from drink culture?
White supremacist patriarchy seems like a good place to start.

The one adjective you’d use to describe yourself:
Curious.

Best thing you ever drank:
A few friends and I skipped out on the last half of Bar Convent Berlin a couple years ago and road tripped down to do the most epic tasting through all the Rochelt schnapps at their distillery in Austria. Then our designated driver drove us to the highest point in the Eastern Alps and later we finished out the afternoon with drunken street sausages in Vienna. The booze was incredible but oftentimes the context really brings it home, ya know?

Worst thing you ever drank:
Anything with rosemary and/or Chartreuse (sorry, not sorry).

The one wine / beer / cocktail that best reflects you / your interests / tastes:
Hunky has a spirit produced by our friends at Matchbook Distilling, which is called “Eau de Milk Punch.” It’s distilled from grapefruit, honey and rescued whey, which was sourced from a local goat’s milk yoghurt farm. It’s totally weird and sustainably-minded, just like me.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
You don’t have to do it all and you really, really don’t have to go to every cocktail festival.

Your favorite bar, and why:
Pare De Sufrir in Guadalajara. There is dancing, mezcal, a disco ball and good friends. What more do you need?

Best meal you’ve ever had:
The first time I got to eat home-cooked chicken adobo at my family’s house in the Philippines. It’s my most favorite food in the world and getting to eat it in my homeland was really special to me.

The last text message you sent:
My friend’s baby just started teething and I just asked, “how’s that on the nips?” Women should always be checking in on each other.

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