Is this Tales of the Cocktail’s white knight? Gary Solomon Jr on taking on the world’s biggest cocktail event

Gary Solomon Jr.
Gary Solomon Jr.

Tales of the Cocktail has grown from small beginnings in 2002 as a walking tour of historic New Orleans bars, to a truly global event on the bar industry calendar. Bartenders from across the globe — with a sizeable contingent from Australia that grows with each year — converge on New Orleans for one week in July, and attend educational seminars, parties, and events with other likeminded bartenders. It was the world’s first truly global cocktail convention.

But Tales has run into trouble in recent times. In March 2017, during New Orleans Mardi Gras, the founders of Tales, Ann and Paul Tuennerman, got into a social media fracas when, according to The New York Times, they “donned blackface as guests in the Zulu Mardi Gras parade,” and Paul Tuennerman “made what some perceived as racially insensitive remarks in a Facebook Live video.” He then resigned from Tales of the Cocktail. Ann Tuennerman then sought to reinstate him later last year, but when that became public knowledge, both Tuennnermans resigned from the event, and sought to sell Tales.

But just who would take on the event? Tales of the Cocktail is a boon to the local New Orleans economy when it takes place during hurricane season (bartenders being the only ones nuts and cheap enough not to care, right?), but it’s not the only global bar industry show anymore: Bar Convent Berlin and London Cocktail Week now attract visitors from around the globe, and this year will see the BCB brand take their event to Brooklyn.

The question that many Tales veterans have been asking is: is it all over?

Well, it would appear not. Last month it was confirmed that Gary Solomon Jr., a New Orleans businessman who has produced events for Tales of the Cocktail in the past, is taking over the event and making it a fully non-profit concern. On Solomon’s recent trip to Australia, our editor Sam Bygrave sat down with him to find out if he’s the white knight that will keep Tales of the Cocktail going. (Spoiler alert: we reckon he is).

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See what he had to say below.

As told to Sam Bygrave

My day job is I run a production business so I produce music festivals and conferences, exhibits — we work all across the US. We’ve got about 300 people based in New Orleans, and our family has been in New Orleans since the late 1960s.

We saw there was a lot of crossover between New Orleans issues and bartender issues, things around addiction, diversity, access to education.

We realised there was an opportunity to invest in and buy the event and its trademarks, [and] put it into a purely not for profit, and that as an ongoing concern it could have some real impact not just in New Orleans but in the international bartending community.

I might understand the production side of it, but we did not know the industry side, so Neal Bodenheimer — who owns Cure and Cane & Table — he’s a longterm New Orleans guy, his family has been there since the 1800s, we brought Neal into the conversation because we thought he could help us understand better from an industry perspective.

A lot of folks have a sense of ownership about it. I think what’s  been surprising in the last two months as we’ve been doing the due diligence on this, is just how many ways that Tales impacts the industry and just how many ways the industry impacts Tales.

It’s my opinion that our job should be to give the event the resources, the governance structure, and the means to lead the industry where it wants to be led; I don’t think the Solomon family should be influencing that as much as we should just be giving it a foundation to work from. It’s not ours.

New Orleans benefits from Tales more than most New Orleanians realise. There was a study that was done by the University of New Orleans that says that Tales has an impact of about $18 million USD a year from that four day weekend. Tales is a lifeline to keep bars and restaurants and the tourism industry going.

We’re lucky to be successful, we’ve all worked very hard at it, my family’s never had anything given to it — we’ve always built our businesses. My great grandfather came to the states in 1920 with 16 dollars in his pocket as an immigrant who couldn’t speak English — it’s not like anyone was inheriting wealth here.  We’ve always been taught that with a lot of success comes the obligation to do the right thing, so we’ve always been a philanthropic and charitable family; it’s just what we do.

New Orleans has a lot of need. Our giving and our work has been primarily in New Orleans and not because we’re not interested in the rest of the United States, but there’s so much to be done in New Orleans we can’t even make a dent in it. There’s a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of issues around special needs education, there’s a lot of issues around diversity, housing, homelessness, addiction — it’s a resilient city, the people that live there are really amazing because they just tough through.

The changes to expect are around transparency. The full opening of the books to understand how [Tales] runs, how decisions are made, and the impact it can have is one major part of it.

One of the big things is we’re going to create this grant-making council that gives away the profit to issues that are important to the industry.

It’s about stabilisation. It’s about letting people know that Tales is here, it’s got good management. You shouldn’t expect everything to be fixed overnight [but] tell us what you love and what you don’t love, and we might make
some changes in 2019 after we’ve got a year underneath our belt.

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