An Interview with Mel Payne

I meet up with Mel on a sunny day in a hip coffee shop near her house. She’s coming from the grocery store, and plans on baking after our interview. She talks about how she’s gone corporate and doesn’t really bartend anymore, but I assure her that her voice is still just as important. We talk about how the cocktail bartenders in the city have really become a supportive community to one another. I ask how she keeps in touch with people in the community. 

“I think that most of the time you just kind of go out and you know you’re going to run into someone. Yeah, like I don’t really ever make plans with people. It’s very much like ‘I’m just going to go sit at the bar, like Civil Liberties, and if I sit there for long enough I will run into at least 10 people I know, and you will just go from there. People will come in and be like ‘yeah we just stopped in for a quick one, we’re on our way to Shameful [Tiki Room] to see Alana’. You just go to the next one, like ‘hey we haven’t been to Montauk in a while let’s see if Mike’s working tonight.’ That’s just kind of it.”

It makes total sense you’d run into 10 people in one night. Part of being a cocktail bartender is going to other bars on your day off and supporting other bartenders in your community. Another great way to see a bunch of bartenders in one place is going to (and/or competing in) a cocktail competition. I asked Mel if women often compete.

“No, it tends to be more males, but that being said like the females who are competing in these competitions are incredible. You got like Veronica Saye, you got Evelyn Chick, these are people who compete internationally, which is really cool to be coming from here. But I think that historically it was males who have always sort of been like bartenders and cocktail makers. I think there’s been kind of a shift though. I think a lot women are opening cocktail bars and being really successful and they’re getting a lot more recognition, and yeah, they’re competing at these international levels and like killing it. Yeah like not as many women for sure as men but you know I think it’s changing for sure.”

Although you can definitely see change happening, I was still curious about the everyday difficulties women face in this industry. So I asked what the hiring process is like, as well as moving up in this industry. Because there are definitely people in this industry, especially people in positions of power and authority, who are making women’s lives more difficult than they should be.

“I think that people [don’t] want to think like that. They want to think that they don’t think like that, but if you look – like if I looked back at where I’ve worked and where I’ve bartended, and I hear like the language being used amongst management when it comes to like hiring [or] promoting, they just don’t have the confidence in women that they should, you know? They’re more likely to give the promotion to a guy than they are with a woman even if they are objectively equally as qualified. There’s just something, and they won’t acknowledge that that’s a thing they’ve actually done, like they’re not conscious of it. They think they’re being reasonable and fair but they’re not.”

“What do they usually say that stops them from moving up?”

“It could be anything. It would never be about like their gender specifically right, but it would be like something that’s sort of vaguely referenced … ‘well they’re just not strong enough to like do this’ or you know? But I think you just sort of hear the conversation and you’re just ‘there’s something that doesn’t sit right with me about this but like ok’. I think they’re more willing to give the opportunity to guys than they are to women. Not everywhere is like that but it’s definitely been the case in a lot of places that I’ve worked, and I think that you’re taken more seriously as a guy as a bartender, right? People just have this construct in their minds, like that is what a bartender looks like”

“Would you say the cocktail scene is still a boys’ club?”

“A little bit, yeah. I think it still is and maybe that’s just my perception but I would say that yeah, it very much still feels like that you know like they’re letting women in they’re showing them up and there are a lot of people who are very liberal about supporting women bartenders like men and like ‘these women are really impressive, we should all be paying attention to how fantastic they are’. There are a lot of them like that and there’s a lot who just you know, sometimes your lack of saying something, anything, is more powerful […]”

“Right”

“I don’t know if that’s ever going to totally go away, right? I feel like a lot of people are always going to have a bit of that old school mentality about it. But I think I mean it’s definitely changed, but I don’t think we’re where we should be yet” (19:12)

“For sure. Like what would you say some examples are for where we’re not at?”

“Like how many female, how many of the city’s like prominent cocktail bars are owned by women or their head bartenders are women or their bar managers are women? You know? It’s definitely disproportionate. And there are a lot of reasons for that, but I think it’s just that it takes– I think you just have to try a lot harder to get to those positions as a woman than you do as a man. It takes a lot more work to break those barriers.” She goes on to say that this isn’t just a problem in cocktail bars, but in every establishment she’s worked in she’s never had a female bar manager.

I actually had to think about it too and I don’t think I’ve ever worked at a place with a female bar manager either. It’s really frustrating too because you can call someone out on their misogyny and they’ll still deny it, either because they don’t want to be seen as a bad person or they just genuinely don’t want to see things differently. And there are definitely people who will listen to you and be like ‘you know what, you’re right’ and change their behavior. But Mel is right, women do just have to work way harder than men to get into this industry.

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