Bartender Patrick Thomas shakes up a Portland Rickey for the kickoff to Tales of the Cocktail at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans. Tales of the Cocktail brings together the international spirits community for five days of education, panels and networking in July.

Two local entrepreneurs signed a letter of intent Friday to take over Tales of the Cocktail, the annual bar and spirits industry conference, with plans to turn it into a nonprofit event that will produce funds for philanthropy.

Gary Solomon Jr., head of the Solomon Group production and design group, and Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of the cocktail lounge Cure and the restaurant Cane & Table, plan to buy the business in early 2018 after a routine vetting.

"I’ve had a history with Tales from a production perspective for a number of years," said Solomon, whose business produces special events, including Tales' Spirited Awards as well as other events at the conference. 

"I've always marveled at how it’s become a destination for the cocktail industry," Solomon said. "The time where it falls in the calendar of New Orleans, it’s such a niche part of the tourism industry in such a sleepy time."

The festival, held in July, generates an economic impact of more than $18 million, according to a University of New Orleans study cited by the buyers.

Keeping the event in the city "is a huge win-win for us, particularly because it happens in July," said Mark Romig, CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., which has helped promote the conference.

Tales of the Cocktail was founded in 2002 as a walking tour of New Orleans bars. It evolved into a small conference centered at the Hotel Monteleone's Carousel Bar. As it grew, however, Tales became a global gathering of the bar and spirits industry.

"I think a lot of New Orleanians don't understand that Tales is not a weeklong party about cocktails," Solomon said. "It’s the cocktail industry’s main destination annually for sharing information and developing their craft."

Tales has been a game-changer for New Orleans, bringing cutting-edge ideas to the city, along with professionals who have moved here after experiencing the conference, Bodenheimer said. Losing the event would have been a devastating blow for the local cocktail community, he said. 

However, the conference hit a wall in the spring. Last Mardi Gras, before riding in the Zulu parade, Tales owner Ann Tuennerman posted a Facebook Live video of herself wearing Zulu's traditional costume, which includes blackface makeup.

A caption by Tales co-owner Paul Tuennerman, Ann Tuennerman's husband, read: "Paul Tuennerman interviewing me on Mardi Gras Morning from the Zulu Den. As he said ‘Throw a little Black Face on and you lose all your media skills.’ He did his best as the interviewer.”

A social media flareup ensued, leading to a broader discussion about diversity and inclusion in the conference. Both Tuennermans resigned in September and announced their intention to sell the conference.

"I think when you have a nonprofit, you have to have transparency, and there's going to be greater transparency," Bodenheimer said. "We want to focus on making positive change in the cocktail industry."

Solomon, whose family is involved in philanthropic endeavors from the National WWII Museum to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, said that as a nonprofit, the conference could aid a variety of still-to-be-determined causes. He cited addiction, education and diversity issues that are hot topics in the industry now.

"And New Orleans is the home of Tales, so New Orleans should benefit," he said. "We fully expect that Tales will be here in New Orleans for a long time."