Pre-pandemic, Beverly Wooding spent three to four nights a week visiting her favourite Toronto bars. She’s on a first-name basis with most, if not all, of the city’s top bartenders. More than just a regular, they treat her like one of their own. Which she is, in a way. Wooding, who is a social-media specialist by day, has long had a fascination with mixology and often knows as much about cocktails as they do. She even turns her vacations into educational spirit journeys; discovering a city through its libationsand bars is her preferred mode of tourism.
With the three-month shutdown of Canada’s $68-billion restaurant industry threatening the livelihood of so many bar staff and their businesses, and some local spots closing their doors for good, Wooding and the Bartenders Benevolent Fund have stepped in to help: The non-profit is offering short-term funding to people in the service industry across Canada (front and back of house). “Regulars get the love. Now it’s up to us to make sure our favourite bars stick around,” she tells Refinery29.
I spoke to Toronto’s most beloved cocktail aficionado about her volunteer work and issues of race and representation in Canada’s bar scene.
Tell me a bit about the Bartenders Benevolent Fund.
The fund was originally set up in 2013 to help bartenders in emergency financial situations, and everyone’s in an emergency situation now. I started working with them shortly after lockdown. I’m very worried about my friends [in the hospitality business] and the financial stress they’re under. Anything I can do to help get money in their pockets, I’m going to do it. I set up the application forms and we scaled it out so it could be national, bilingual, and, as of June 16, open to all restaurant workers at licensed establishments. Our first week we had no idea what the demand was going to be. We assumed it would be high, and it was. We set a cap and reached it within an hour. We’ve upped capacity since then.
How much have you raised so far?
We’ve received donations from Hennessy, Beam Suntory, Campari Group, Rémy Cointreau, and others. A number of breweries are donating portions of curbside sales and there have been online fundraisers and individual donations. We’ve raised close to half a million and distributed over $275,000.
The service industry is known for issues like misogyny, low wages, and long, unpredictable hours. Has the pandemic made things worse?
It’s a microcosm of the larger society. This has been a time where people have the capacity to think about what it’s been like and address it. It’s like a COVID-19 test, if you test more, you’ll get more results. People have time to test now. More people are talking about the racism, the sexism, the mental health and addiction issues — all of that is getting more attention in this downtime.
Do you think it’s weird that there aren’t more Black bartenders in a city as multicultural as Toronto?
I don’t think I consciously thought it was weird because that’s how it’s always been. In the world at large, not just in the bar scene. Growing up in Calgary [where my family moved after we left Trinidad], which is very white, you have to assimilate for your own safety. When I was growing up there were definitely skinhead gangs roaming the streets. When I say assimilation, I mean as much as someone who looks like me can — you straighten your hair, you wear preppy clothes, you lose your accent. I came here as an immigrant with an accent and I dropped it real fast. I’m lucky that I’m a good mimic. For me, that assimilation mindset is still there.
With the conversations taking place right now, do you feel hopeful for change?
At a certain level there is an appetite for change and I hope that momentum sticks once everyone reopens. Black people have gotten used to a lot, so it’s hard to be hopeful. We’ve gotten used to the microaggressions because they happen daily. There was one time I was sitting with my friends in an empty restaurant, and a party of white people came in. They got served before my table of Black people. That kind of thing happens all the time. For our own safety, we just have to suck it up and carry on. Otherwise we’d lose our minds. A lot of places are saying the right things: how they’re going to change this, implement that, bring in Black consultants to analyze their corporate culture. I feel like we’ve heard all this before. I’m reserving judgment until I see what they actually do.
What could help to shift representation within the bar industry?
There has to be more mentorship in place, and mentors have to aggressively and deliberately seek out young bartenders of colour. They need to nurture talent in a way that allows them to go on and open their own places.
You’re not a heavy drinker, why are you so drawn to bars?
At the end of a workday it’s just nice to be taken care of and these places take care of me. The heart of hospitality is making sure guests feel welcome. It’s about more than just cocktails. I go to bars that excel at hospitality, which is really all that it should be about. There was definitely a trend in the early to mid-2000s of the bartender knows best. That they are the experts and they’ll show us how to drink. The level of expertise is still there, but there’s more of a focus on guests than knowledge. There’s a warmth that I’ve encountered that makes me want to keep coming back.
Was there a particular drink, or bartender, that turned you into such a hardcore mixology fan?
I’ve always had the palate. As a kid in Trinidad I couldn’t get enough mauby. It’s a drink made from the bark of the Caribbean mauby tree. You boil it with spices to extract the flavour. It’s very, very bitter and you need to dilute it with water and sugar. I love that bittersweet flavour. In 2014, I discovered Rush Lane on Queen West. It’s no longer open, but they were so great about explaining different spirits to me and that piqued my interest to dig into it more. A lot of bartenders hung out there, and at Civil Liberties, another excellent bar. That’s how I met many of the people I know in the business and it expanded from there.
You even plan your vacations around cocktails!
When I go travelling I usually end up getting adopted by a local bartender. There’s a mezcaleria I go to in Sayulita called Cava. These guys are so happy to talk about what they love, so when someone shows an interest, they share their knowledge. I learned about raicilla and sotol when I was there recently, spirits that are widely drunk in Mexico but that I’d never had before. I went to RumFest in Chicago with my friend Robin Wynne, the bartender at Miss Things, and got to taste rums from all over the world. Going with Robin, who is very connected in the rum world, made it super fun.
What did you miss most about bars and restaurants during COVID-19?
I don’t want to do all these dishes. Shoutout to the dishwashers.