“Community is so important, especially during crisis moments,” says Lynnette Marrero. She should know. In addition to building communities at the many bars she’s helmed—most recently Manhattan’s Llama San and Brooklyn’s Llama Inn, as well as the recently opened Art Deco cocktail lounge Wonderbar, in New York’s Hudson Valley—Marrero also has built an enduring community of women through Speed Rack, a competition for female bartenders that raises funds for breast cancer research.
Marrero’s career began alongside cocktail legend Julie Reiner at New York’s Flatiron Lounge, where she quickly moved from cocktail waitress to bartender. Stints at Freemans, Elettaria, Rye House and other bars followed, along with a two-year run as a rum ambassador for Diageo.
During the pandemic, she’s been focused on keeping in touch with her community, from her Speed Rack network to staff at her various venues, and supporting others to take the time for education and mentorship. “We need to push each other and encourage each other to keep evolving,” she says.
Supporting the bar community is also a priority for Marrero, and that includes participating in Old-Fashioned Week (October 16-25, 2020). During this week, Elijah Craig will donate up to $100,000 to the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation. Funds raised will go toward direct financial assistance, grants to nonprofit partners working to address the needs of restaurant workers during this crisis, and to a zero-interest loan program for small businesses starting back up
Responding nimbly to the pandemic
Marrero sums up her pandemic business strategy as “being nimble, giving yourself the space to overthink, and keeping in contact with everyone.” Of course, that has meant different things for various aspects of her business, from transitioning the events-based Speed Rack to a digital platform to managing the closure and reopening of her bars, as well as the grand opening of a new venue an hour or so north of New York City. As of late September, both Llama Inn and Llama San had re-opened for outdoor seating, with limited indoor seating (25% capacity) anticipated to resume October 1, while Wonderbar, her new venue upstate, was fully open with 50% seating capacity indoors.
Lynnette Marrero: Like everyone, we had to be extremely nimble, waiting to respond to things but also trying to be proactive as much as you can.
Since events and things like that are not happening at the moment, Speed Rack has the least-clear future. The Speed Rack community has been trying to keep in touch with everyone and keep spirits high, and be available to support the network in any way. We’re working on different education platforms and other things that we think will have positive influence. It has been great to see some of the projects that Speed Rack women have started, such as FOHealth [a health and wellness initiative for food and beverage pros] that Lauren Paylor and Alex Jump have started. And we’ve committed to completing Season 9 of Speed Rack, whenever that happens in the future. We still have a regional left for D.C., and then a national competition.
For bars and restaurants, we’ve been keeping in contact and communicating with the staff during the time. At Llama Inn, we did an auction and raised $40,000 to support our staff. We were open for a period for to-go [orders] when we were at the peak [of the pandemic], but decided to shut down until Memorial Day weekend, when we thought it was safer to bring everyone back. So the money was there to help and support during that downtime. There was a staff pantry that was opened for different teams to come in and grab some dry goods, some groceries, during that time. We had to make the decision to support our community.
Now that we are reopening, we are thinking about how we bring back our teams, making sure everyone feels comfortable, supported, as safe as we can make them in the space, being diligent about what our roles are coming back. I feel good about the move that we’re making. We’ve been slow and steady, doing everything a week after we’re allowed to do things. That’s been a strong leadership role from the ownership—don’t rush it. Thankfully, it’s helped us not make some costly mistakes.
Llama San is opening for outdoor seating, two weeks after it was first allowed. We’ve been grappling with how to do it. Overthinking it has been our best defense in a lot of things. Opening right is better than panic-opening. Now, if only the rain would cooperate.
Refocusing on mentorship and “deeper education”
Compared to the frenetic activity of pre-COVID-19 times, Marrero encourages bartenders to use the current slowdown to hone their skills and help others do the same.
Marrero: Before the pandemic, we were all running at a pace that was sometimes so fast. A lot of mentorship and education was missing. There was lots of trade education, but all that on-the-job learning from other humans—that was getting lost. Now we can go deeper, and invest back in the staff, and give them what they need to progress forward.
Now there are opportunities to promote from within, to build a family. Barbacks—now we have time to train them; they’ll have more access to my head bartender, they’ll train and teach because we won’t be at insanity capacity. That lifting from within will be a positive way to go forward. Now it’s an opportunity to look at underrepresented groups and hire and train and support.
Deeper education is going to be really important during this time. By that I mean what we consider as trade secrets: how you taste, how you build menus, how you build drinks. We had a lot of drink makers, but didn’t invest in drink creators, and helping them find their voice.
Celebrating the simplicity of the Old-Fashioned
While Marrero is enthusiastic about the “simplicity” of the classic Old-Fashioned, she acknowledges that it’s a versatile template for riffing. To that end, she’s looking forward to celebrating iconic cocktail’s many variations during Old-Fashioned Week (October 16-25, 2020).
Marrero: My favorite part of the Old-Fashioned is that it’s a great template. It lets the base spirit shine. You really have to look at it, to develop deeper flavors. Sometimes, the simpler the cocktail, the harder to innovate. My Taboo cocktail, a follow-up to a similar cocktail on the Llama Inn menu, uses culinary techniques and flavors to innovate on a simple cocktail.
I’m looking forward to participating in Old-Fashioned Week because I think it’s fun. We’re celebrating simplicity and the first cocktail ever. I’m excited to see what people come up with. We’re using the same base—bourbon—and I’m looking forward to seeing the complexity, and how creative people have to get. And right now, anything community-building and bringing people together while we’re all apart, anything that gives our community some goals together to aim for, that’s a positive thing.