Laura Cullen is well-known as a USBG Miami Chapter Member, Former USBG Board Member & Founder of Liberty Consulting.
Originally from New York City, Laura grew up in the restaurant business; her father was an owner operator for 42 years before retiring in 2006. Her own career began in restaurants and shifted to corporate sales and training. Prior to the opening of her restaurant in 2005, Laura spent 12 years in the wholesale wine and spirits industry specializing in on-premise sales, marketing and training.
She spent the last eight years as an owner operator of Clarke’s in Miami Beach, a project that started as an MBA thesis, and a lifelong dream. Laura’s restaurant, Clarkes received local and national acclaim. After eight years in business she sold her bar in Miami Beach in 2013 and moved to San Francisco to accept the position of Vice President Sales Manager Northern California On Premise for Pacific Wine and Spirits.
ADAPT TO THRIVE
During Day One of the National Leadership Conference, Laura gave a heartfelt speech and spoke in depth about the many challenges the hospitality industry has been facing this year, along with her background as a bartender and longtime industry leader.
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Here are a few highlights from Laura’s motivational keynote speech…
"I like to think that this is a great moment for hospitality, that perhaps this colossal cliff that we’re looking over is actually a jump off point for positive change. Perhaps this is our moment to adapt and to create an environment where we all thrive."
There is no challenge in this World that bar tending hasn’t already prepared you for. A good bartender anticipates the needs of others. A great bartender anticipates those needs and meets them often before anyone else knows there was ever a need to begin with. You are educated on a myriad of topics. You are a great communicator, and you can command the room as easily as you can slip into the background. You are adept at resolving conflict. Thinking on your feet and making adjustments on the fly are all part of the job. Adaptation is the key to a great shift, and without flexibility and ingenuity, you cannot thrive in this business. The World is a very different place right now, and as I was preparing to talk to you all today, I started to ask myself a few questions.
- How do you engage in your community?
- What are the benefits of unity and communication?
- What makes you happy?
How do you engage your community?
I learned everything I know about community from the OG mentor himself, my Dad. My father was an owner operator in NYC for over 40 years, and a publican in truest form. He treated everyone in the bar equally. Front of house, back of house, non-English speaking, marginalized minority, it didn’t matter to him. He cashed neighborhood people’s pay checks. He lent staff money for deposits for rent, he sponsored several of the guys in the kitchen to obtain citizenship (you could do that in the 70s) He was that guy. When I started working shifts as a teenager, he instilled a work ethic in me that I cherish to this day. I was not to be treated differently because I was his daughter, in fact, by virtue of the fact that I was his daughter I was meant to set the standard. If you weren’t 10 minutes early, you were late, it was always your job, it was always your station and the customer wasn’t always right, but they were always the customer, you never win an argument with a guest.
When I opened my bar in Miami Beach in 2005, I wanted to be that neighborhood joint. The place where people in tuxedos sat at the bar next to fishermen, one having a martini on their way to the opera, the other having a beer after a long day on the boat. I wanted no nonsense food, straight forward drinks and great banter. A good local is as much of a community center as anything else. Sundays at Clarke’s became our industry day, and you could walk in at any point from brunch to dinner to find industry people congregating at the bar. Discussing everything from drinks and service to football and weather. I worked doubles behind the bar on Sunday and while they were long shifts, I loved looking out and seeing the community that was building. There’s no better soundtrack than the sound of your customers chatting, the knives and forks clinking and the drinks flowing.
What are the benefits of unity and communication?
I was asked once to write a testimonial about being involved with the USBG and it got me thinking…not all of my experiences were great. As the Miami chapter grew, so did the cocktail community at large. People questioned the chapter leadership, but were unwilling to get involved. It was a tough time, and one that I’m sure many chapters can relate to. As a member of the National Board, I often fielded criticism that was based on perception and had little appetite for reality. I say this because leadership in an organization like the USBG should be held accountable, but all parties have to be willing to hear each other in order to resolve issues. If you want to be a part of something special, you have to be willing to do some of the work. If you want to catalyze systemic change, you have to be willing to listen. Coming to a consensus often means that not everyone gets exactly what they want, but if you are engaged in the process, and can unite around a common set of goals, my experience has been that you can build something special, inclusive and worth participating in. Clear communication and common understanding are integral to the success of any organization. I’m a big fan of simple statements guiding more complicated propositions. If any of you have ever had the privilege of working with Sean Finter, he says that if you can’t articulate your plan on the back of a cocktail napkin, you simply don’t have one.
USBG Mission: "To unite the hospitality community to advance professional bartending."
The mission is to unite us so that we can constantly improve. I can get behind that. We as leaders in this Guild should be able to communicate that.
What makes you happy?
This is very personal. The simple statement - Pursue Happiness. More than a neon sign, more than a hashtag, more than an ode to those gone too soon. Pursue happiness is a way of life that I have embraced in the last couple of years. For me, it is the metric by which I measure every decision. And having that metric has allowed me to realize that for all the struggle, for all of the hard work, for all of the experiences we have in life, what is the point of at the end of the day we aren’t happy? This doesn’t mean that every day you ride a unicorn to work in your rainbow castle. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t things in your life that you wish were different. It means that you seek to make improvements. That you are constantly moving towards a state of gratitude. That you evaluate where you are in your life, in your career, in your relationships. That if you are in a place where you are unhappy less often than you are not, you move away from that place.
I bring this up because now more than ever we are all faced to make difficult decisions. The future is so uncertain, and we have been shaken to our core. But I have so much faith in the Bartender as a representative figure in the hospitality community, and in the leaders on this call who are here because they believe that they can make a difference.
- There is no challenge in this World that bar tending hasn’t already prepared you for.
- Let’s all stay engaged with each other. Draw strength from each other and come up collectively with solutions.
- Let’s use our collective experiences to stay unified. To communicate out to the World around us that we are a community who are adaptable, who are resilient and who are not going away.
- Let’s use this precipice as an entry point to a industry That continues to work on being diverse and inclusive.
- That no longer champions 80 work weeks, no sleep and instead finds our way to healthier living.
- Respect the shift, do good work, pursue happiness.