Meredith Barry of Niche Food Group has had to rethink so many things due to the COVID-induced upheaval in the industry.
In March, Niche Food Group's Meredith Barry was settling into the role of bar manager at Taste. Two months into the job, she finally felt like she was at a point where she understood the bar's identity and its regulars, and she was preparing to introduce a cocktail menu of her own design. Then, she got a message from her brother.
"My older brother texted me, wondering if I was doing OK," Barry says. "I said, "Yeah, why?" and he told me, "Pay attention to the news, Meredith." I'm in my own little world so focused on work — it's my hobby, obsession and career. I figured that I should, and that's when France shut down. Then Chicago shut down, and we realized that this was really serious. It's naive, but until then, it was something that was happening somewhere else; so many people felt that way. It doesn't really hit home until it's at your back door."
In the months since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic turned the hospitality industry on its head and displaced an overwhelming number of its professionals, Barry has experienced a series of ups and downs. On the positive side, she was tapped by Niche Food Group owner Gerard Craft to lead La Verita his brand's new line of amaros, liqueurs and nonalcoholic cordials. It's the sort of gig she's dreamed of her entire bartending career. The position has allowed her to channel her energy toward creating something new and exciting, and she spends her days doing research and development in an environment she likens to a laboratory of pure creativity, which has always appealed to her.
However, the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on her profession has also caused her to look inward and question her very identity. She admits that she has never really had a work-life balance and has wrapped up so much of her self worth in her career. When all of that came crashing down, she worried she was going down with it.
"When you devote your entire existence to and define yourself by something, you felt it is recession proof — and you can take the job anywhere in world and be able to have connection anywhere in this industry — when that is taken away from you, it's hard," Barry says. "I define myself by my job, what I am doing and creating, the people that I am with and who I am teaching and bringing up in this industry. That’s how I defined my self worth, and not having that, I was like, then who am I? What am I? How am I going to navigate this?"
Those questions have prompted Barry to think through so much of what it means to be a hospitality professional and what motivates her in her work. She realizes how much she lives for the connection that comes from interacting with guests, and, in turn, facilitating that interaction for them. She understands how much her creativity is informed by others — that her cocktails are better when they are a collaboration between her and her guests, rather than just something she comes up with on her own.
However, the time away from the bar has also made her aware of the flaws in the industry. She describes the push to work herself to death — something she also witnesses in so many of her colleagues — and feels that there is a toxicity in the business that needs to change. By promoting a work-life balance, the importance of mental health and treating one another with respect, she feels that the industry can become as much of a hospitable place to its workers as its guests, and she points to her current workplace and Craft as people who are leading that change.
Still, for all its flaws, Barry cannot wait to get back to a place where she is interacting with others. It's what motivates and inspires her — and it's something she feels is essential to everyone.
"People need these connections and need to go out to eat to have these moments," Barry says. "It's special and it's important to feel taken care of. At first we didn't seem like a necessity, but now we kind of are. People won’t stop going out to eat – we can't stop because it’s in our culture. When you can’t have that, you're not connecting to people who have different views and values. I think bars and restaurants do that. People go to bars to meet other people and have a shared experience, and that place becomes your neighborhood watering hole. You may not see those people on an everyday basis, but you are not strangers there. That’s not happening right now, and I think humans crave it. I do."
Barry took a break from the La Verita lab to share her thoughts on the St. Louis hospitality community, the myth of hospitality as a recession-proof industry and how taking pleasure in a sit-down dinner at home and a few Negronis is getting her though.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I’ve dedicated my life to the hospitality industry so I could give joy to people. Watching that crumble has been devastating.
What do you miss most about the way you did your job before the pandemic?
Because I am no longer working at a bar, I do not have the opportunity to connect with guests. I just want one night of all bar choices! I only had a taste of that connection doing a few farm dinners outside with Rex Hale this summer. I need more.
What do you miss least?
The late nights. I have dinner now at 6 p.m., sitting down, which is luxurious. I get to bed at a reasonable hour. I like waking up early in the morning instead of going to bed at that hour.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
What is normal? I think I have forgotten.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Pizza Head. My neighbor Ellen’s baked goods. So many Negronis.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Cans of tomato. Dog treats. Spirits needed for the making of Negronis.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
I have to go with my partner Brittany and ... are animals considered people? If so, I choose dogs.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Eek. I don’t know if I’ll ever be quite comfortable. However, when it’s safe to do so, I would like to travel all over to hug my family and friends.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people feel comfortable returning to normal activity levels?
When and if we return to “normal” activity levels, I believe people will feel the impact of their favorite places being closed, if they have not already. New memories will be made, and we will mourn the old for some time. I think we will see a dip in available employment. Owners will still have to run short-staffed for some time to account for losses. Then there is the question of, "Will there be qualified staff to hire?" There is a newfound fragility in this "recession-proof" industry. We see the cracks, now. Even if you are passionate, you will ask if it is worth it.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
It is the incredible hospitality family that is Niche Food Group and Gerard Craft here in St. Louis and all of the people supporting us. The responsibility, the care and the creativity has continued to thrive. I am grateful to be a part of it.
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