Changing the culture of a community, or even one organization, can be a tall order. But Tales of the Cocktail now has a $250,000 tab on the table to help fill it.

That’s the amount the new leaders of the annual spirits industry happening have pledged in grant funding for 2018, their first year at the helm. The organization is now putting out a call for ideas for where that support should go, with a focus on social, economic and health issues in the hospitality field.

The grants are part of a new approach for Tales of the Cocktail, a New Orleans-based group best known for its annual conference, and one that underwent a recent shake up. It changed hands in February, was restructured as a nonprofit (officially, the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation) and has been recalibrating ever since.

It also has a new executive director, Caroline Rosen, and as she has begun steering the ship she is now shedding more light on how Tales of the Cocktail will pursue its new course.

Grants are one big part of that, and they will be awarded at the beginning of this year’s Tales of the Cocktail conference (July 17-22).

“We want that to kick us off to set the tone,” said Rosen. “We are an organization that’s passionate to help, and as we introduce ourselves we’re putting the people we help at the forefront. I think that’s a big change.”

In February, Gary Solomon Jr., head of the local production company the Solomon Group, and Neal Bodenheimer, proprietor of the cocktail lounges Cure and Cane & Table, bought Tales of the Cocktail from its founders, Ann and Paul Tuennerman.

The move was supported by Solomon’s family, which is prominent in local business and philanthropic circles. Through Tales of the Cocktail, they have pledged $250,000 this year in grants to support a mix of New Orleans-area organizations and others working on issues that affect the hospitality field more broadly.

“Diversity, access, equity, addiction treatment — these are things we’re interested in as a family, things the city has a stake in and that the industry is calling out for,” said Gary Solomon Jr., in an earlier interview. “If we can address them through Tales, that’s pretty attractive to us.”

A multi-part grant application process launched this week, beginning with a call for proposals that runs through early May (see guidelines at talesofthecocktail.org). These are simple letters of intent, meant to gather ideas without the strictures of a formal grant proposal. Ideas that rise to the top will continue to the next step, with more detailed applications for evaluation by a grants committee. 

Rosen said that committee will be composed of “leaders, influencers and experts in our industry,” and that its membership would be finalized soon.

“We decided to reach out to Tales' greatest critics first to ask if they'd like to be involved and/or who they felt should be involved in the process,” Rosen said. “It is important for us to have the right people on this committee and we wanted its selection to be a collective effort.”

The new leadership team has repeatedly called 2018 a year to stabilize and reintroduce Tales of the Cocktail. That approach guides the first round of grant funding also.

“We’re a year one foundation, and it’s very rare that a year one organization can start by saying we want to help our community in a big way, and reach out to diverse members of the community to help drive it,” said Rosen. “We’re ready to hear where the needs are. We don’t want to dictate where this goes, we want to learn more about what’s needed.”

Tumult, and new beginnings

Tales of the Cocktail started small but grew rapidly, in step with the rising profile of the spirits business. It became an important networking and career development stop for professionals internationally, and it’s brought an influx of tourism business to the city during the deep summer lull.

But last year, outcry over a racially charged social media post led to its founders’ resignations and put the organization on the market. Once structured as a commercial production company with a nonprofit arm, Tales of the Cocktail was reorganized under its new leadership as a nonprofit.

Rosen herself comes to the job from another local organization that saw its own tumult last year.

She was previously executive director of the John Besh Foundation. In October, a newspaper investigation accused Besh of sexual harassment and claimed his company fostered a hostile work environment. The foundation is a separate organization from the restaurant group, but it immediately felt the impact of the scandal.

That included anxious inquiries from recipients of Chefs Move scholarships, the signature program of the John Besh Foundation that pays for aspiring minority chefs from New Orleans to attend culinary school in New York.

“When the news came out about John and the restaurant group, our first thought was to our recipients and alumni,” of Chefs Move scholarships, Rosen said. “I had a responsibility to four young adults from New Orleans who were in New York at that time. The calls I was getting were gut wrenching. They didn’t know if they’d be able to finish, what would happen. Before I did anything I wanted to make sure they were able to fulfill this experience. Once we did that, I decided it was time to move on.

“I’m proud of the work I did there, proud of the young people coming home to become leaders in this industry,” she said.

Raising the bar

Now at Tales of the Cocktail, Rosen said one of her aims is to build new bridges in New Orleans, for the benefit of her organization and the people who attend and support it.

“We’re starting to dig in to see how can we reengage the spirits community and also the New Orleans community,” Rosen said. “New Orleans makes Tales of the Cocktail what it is, the food, the history, the architecture, the music. We’re leaning in to ideas for how we bring all those aspects into Tales. That’s how we’re going to continue to grow.”

One example is a new quarterly series of industry education events in New Orleans, to be led by top international talent. The idea is to stretch the group’s professional development opportunities beyond the summer conference, when many in the local business are too busy serving the rest of its visitors to attend.

Rosen believes the group’s new structure, its focus on local programs and broader grant funding can position Tales of the Cocktail to be a stronger voice in the hospitality field, at a time when the culture of that field has been up for new assessment.

She said that’s the potential that motivates the work now underway for Tales of the Cocktail.

“Our hospitality in New Orleans is the best in the world, I’ll stand by that, and we’re on the cusp of doing something really special,” she said. “My vision is that people around the country and around the world will be seeing these ideas take root and making a difference, and they’ll be things that started with support from Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.”

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.