In our Humanity in Hospitality series, we’ve been exploring the human cost of sexism, racism, and general exclusion of audiences outside of the young white male demographic, which is where beer has historically invested most of its time and energy. It’s the hero segment for brands from macro to micro, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes unwittingly.
And while the talk of “community” was generally accepted as part of the promise of craft beer, over the years it’s become troubling to realize that perhaps it was only a subset of our communities, the white and male subsets, that were truly considered in any meaningful way. Like most aspects of our complex social, economic, and cultural progress, it’s become clear that even within beer, these promises won’t become reality without intentional effort.
In addition to the human cost, many craft brewery owners are also starting to understand the business costs of this kind of passive exclusivity. It makes your potential market smaller. Your fan base doesn’t grow. And in a segment of the beer industry known for its explicit lack of loyalty to any one brewery or beer, many are starting to realize the unnecessary limitations they’ve placed on their growth by limiting the size of the perceived community.
To dig into some of those aspects that straddle business and social goals, I talked to the newly-elected Brewers Association board member, Diversity Committee member, and brewery co-owner Julie Verratti. Julie runs Denizens Brewing Company in Silver Spring, Maryland alongside her wife Emily Bruno, and her brother-in-law, Jeff Ramirez. Together, they’ve taken steps to ensure they send a strong signal of inclusivity to their customers and staff alike. And it’s paying off in myriad ways.
It’s interesting to me that the word Denizen has a duality to it. On one hand, it refers to a local resident, someone who occupies a space, a denizen of an area. But it’s also used to define an alien or a foreign resident who occupies an area. I’m curious if that duality has any relevance whatsoever to the brewery, yourselves, your place in that community, or in the brewing world.
The name of your company is a huge part of who you are as a company and just your brand in general. And so for us, the name Denizens does mean we are all equal. We’re all denizens of Silver Spring, we’re all denizens of the beer community, and we really wanted to have that connotation for everyone who experiences our brand—that experience where they feel welcome and they can just be who they are. It doesn’t matter if they are the nerdiest craft beer person you’ve ever met in your life, or someone who has never tried craft beer. We wanted to create an atmosphere and a brand that everyone felt welcome to be just exactly who they are in that moment, and that we would welcome them and treat them with respect, dignity, and equality.
And hopefully they learn something and have a good time.
Why did you feel like that was necessary? Some people, I think, assume that a brewery already exhibits that.
I think it is necessary and important for people to hear that they are accepted for exactly who they are as human beings. I will tell you this, as a business, it kind of derails the idea of us ever having a coolness factor, if that makes sense. If you are open to everybody, then you are never going to be trendy or cool, or the popular kid. But at the end of the day, the folks that interact with you and your business, especially if they are in your taproom, they are going to notice that difference and they are going to feel accepted and want to keep coming back.
Help me understand why you think that being accepting and inclusive is somehow oppositional to being a cool kid in the brewing world. Why are those things oppositional in your mind?
I don’t even think it’s just in the brewing world, I think in general, right? What is the thing that makes somebody part of the cool kids in high school? It’s because you are unattainable and you are a group that, by your very nature, is sort of, “We are the cool kids and you are not. We are the thing you aspire to be a part of, but you are never going to get the invite.” And so I think there is a little bit of that in the beer world. There is sort of this “cool kid” factor in a lot of breweries—that’s great, those folks that have thousands and thousands of social media followers, and lots of people who tweet about them, and Instagram about them, and all those things. That’s obviously one way to build your brand and get a huge following. But for us, we want to be a part of our very immediate community. And trying to be the cool kids and act exclusive and as if not everyone is invited to this table here, is not a way to be a part of your community. At least that has been our experience.
One of the things you’ve done is signaled in a very strong way how some of that translated into your politics and worldview. Not only you as owners of the brewery, but you have kind of taken it to another level and pushed the message of inclusion with Black Lives Matter. You’ve used #resistance in some of your social media. Why is this important to you and what do you gain from that?
What we gain from it is a sense of integrity and sense of doing what we think is the right thing. It is a weird thing to me, and Emily actually talks about this a lot. Emily is my business partner, and also my wife, who helps run the company along with Jeff Ramirez. She said this recently in an interview, and I thought this is a really good way of putting it: “How can you claim, as a company, to be a part of your community, and stay neutral when there are things happening in our country that are excluding people in your community?”
And so for us, it is important. We’ve alienated people, we’ve lost customers, we’ve pissed people off. But I also think that, for us, putting a stamp and a name behind it, not just as individual business owners, but as a business itself saying we stand for equality and we stand for economic opportunity and we stand for treating people with dignity no matter who they are or where they came from, what their ethnicity, what their background is...that, for us, is essential to keeping our integrity.
You mentioned that it does alienate some folks. What do you say to people who feel alienated by that inclusive message? You’re inclusive to everyone, but that alienates some people who feel excluded. How do you run that equation in your mind?
The things we really take a stand on are principles. The principle of equality, the principle of equal opportunity to economic access, the principle of treating everyone with respect and dignity. That’s not necessarily a partisan thing. I think that’s a human being approach, right? And so there some folks out there that don’t agree with that in general, in their personal lives or whatever it is they’re doing. But for us, this is who we are as people, this is who we are as a company. We want to be as authentic as possible, so we need to take a stand where we believe in something.
What about those folks that wish that you just stick to the beer?
I don’t really know what to say to them. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings first, right? Like, I’m Julie Verratti, business owner of Denizens Brewing Company, but I’m also Julie Verratti, human being. As is Emily Bruno, as is Jeff Ramirez, as are all the folks that work for us and with us. We’re human beings first. We’ve never been shy about what we stand for and what we believe in. We held a political rally during the 2016 primaries, and we were lucky enough to be able to support Hillary Clinton. We had Chelsea Clinton out to the brewery to campaign for her mom, and that was one of the proudest days I’ve ever felt as a business owner, to be able to be involved at that level. And you know, I’m sure people saw that and were like, “Screw Denizens, I’m never going back there again.” And that’s all right, because I also believe there are a lot of people out who were surprised at how outspoken we were during the election. And I think that there are some folks who see that, and think, “Wow, that is a business that is not staying neutral. I want to frequent a business that does that—that stands for something.” It’s not just some bullshit social media post, waxing poetic about certain principles. We’re actually taking action at the end of the day. And, I think that’s important.
I wonder if you were running a furniture store or an office supply store or a coffee shop, if it would have the same impact as you do with a brewery? Does being a brewery bring with it an extra or unique responsibility to be political or principled in that way for your community?
Do I think it’s unique to breweries? Not necessarily. Do I think it’s unique to retail experiences that are akin to what breweries bring? Absolutely. If you are a furniture store, people aren’t going there to hold community meetings, right? They are there to buy furniture and go home. One of the big things we do—and this is not unique to Denizens, this is true to most breweries, if not all of them, at least on the craft and independent level—is try to create a space for the folks that live in your community to use for meet-ups and discussions. When you’re drinking beer and having good discussions about things, whether politics or otherwise, you know, it loosens you up a bit, you get to be a little bit more honest, right? We are in a position where we can offer this free meet-up space for folks in our community to talk about these important things that impact people every day. And I do think it is necessary for breweries to open their spaces up for that. Do I think that they need to be as outspoken as we are on things? Maybe, maybe not.
Shifting a bit to your personal experiences. As a gay woman, I’m curious if there is sort of a constant “coming out” within the industry around your colleagues. Do you find yourself thinking about when and where you can be yourself? Around your colleagues, are there times you feel more accepted than others? What is it like to be Julie as a craft brewery owner in the brewing industry right now?
I was 21 when I came out to my family and my parents. I actually have a twin sister, so I told my twin sister that I was gay when I was about 18, which was basically a couple of months after I figured it out for myself. But ever since I came out, to at least my parents, to my extended family, I never had an experience where I’ve felt like I needed to hide who I was. And quite frankly, I am more masculine-presenting than not, so I’ve never actually had to have the experience of coming out to people since I first did. I just sort of come out in the mere fact of who I am and how I present myself.
I can tell you about an experience I had, which shows why representation matters, and it matters tremendously. I was at GABF a few years ago, and I was standing with a group of industry friends and colleagues, and someone in the group, there were like four or five of us hanging out, and we had had a few beers. One of my colleagues whom I had interacted with at that point numerous times, and I still interact with this person to this day, I think he experienced a lesson in this moment. He used the word “faggot” in a story. He’s standing in this circle, and it’s me and these other folks—everyone else in the circle were straight white dudes. And this person said the word “faggot,” and I could literally see him almost trying to claw back the word out of his mouth as it came out, because he was looking at me in the eyes, and you could tell he was thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I just used that word.” And if I hadn’t been in that conversation, standing there, he may not have ever had a second thought about that. I’ve never talked to this person about the situation. But we looked at each other after he said it, and I could tell that he felt so horrible about the fact that he had used that word in front of me. I don’t know if he has used it since, but I can tell you that he was thinking about what he just said in that moment and probably carried that with him the rest of that evening.
What do you do as a business owner to ensure that takes place within your own business? Like, what are some of the tactile things you do toward that end?
We have a handbook that says you are not allowed to discriminate on any level, including sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, you know, as expansive as one can be. We’ve had a staff member who used a derogatory term and he was fired immediately. So, we don’t just put it in the handbook and forget about it—we actually take action towards it.
We try and create a safe space and a safe environment for folks who work with us. We have folks that work for us for whom Spanish is their native language—it is the language they grew up speaking, writing, and they don’t speak English very well, or write English very well. We pay for English classes for folks on our team who can come and learn from a tutor, at no charge to them whatsoever. Their hours aren’t docked for this, it’s just extra training that we’re providing for them for free, so that can learn how to communicate better in English. That’s important for us, but it’s good for them, because they can move forward in their lives, no matter where they are. In five years, if they are not working for Denizens any more, we still want them to be successful wherever they are. Teaching them skill sets like that is really important to us.
That’s one of the more above and beyond examples I’ve heard, contributing to that kind of workplace. Other than principled humanity situations like that, why would a brewery owner want to take on that expense, that time, that complication?
I believe you should be constantly looking at ways to reinvest in your employees, and the folks that are working for you and putting, again, their blood, sweat, and tears into everything they do for their job. They are representing your brand. Why wouldn’t you want to take care of them and give them every single opportunity you possibly can to make them better in their lives, prop them up, and give them the skills they need to succeed? I think that is really important. We pay for things like that and provide those opportunities, but we also support other things. Our sales manager, Ben, just found out today that he passed his Cicerone exam. We paid for that exam for him. I want to help him be better at what he does as a sales person, but I also want to make sure that folks work for us have other skills, like learning how to speak, read, and write English better than when they started with us.
Do you find that the way in which you focus on the needs of your employees helps them focus on the needs of your customers in the same way?
Most of the time, yes. I do think that our team does an amazing job at making everybody feel comfortable. We try and greet people when they walk in the taproom door within 10 seconds of them walking in, and making them feel welcome and acknowledged. I think acknowledgement is a huge part of hospitality. There is nothing that drives me more nuts than when I walk into an establishment as a customer, and I’m standing there, and I’m not even acknowledged. I get that you can’t help me immediately, but at least give me a head nod or something, right?
I imagine that acknowledgment is a great kind of equalizer. If someone comes into a place and they don’t know if they are really welcome, but they are immediately acknowledged, they at least have the comfort of knowing that someone wants them there.
I think that is a huge part of it. We try and do that. I think it goes a long way. It is amazing how much patience a customer will have if you at least acknowledge their presence within 10 seconds of walking in. They are more willing to wait an extra five minutes before you take their order than if you hadn’t done that. I think it’s a smart business practice, let alone in just being a decent human being.
Do you find that the way in which you operate and the messages you send have cultivated an audience that is unique to Denizens in terms of its diversity and inclusiveness?
I don’t know the answer to that. I hope it has. I don’t hope that it is unique to Denizens, because I want everybody to have that situation. I do hope that it has created an atmosphere with anyone who interacts with us and our brand, that they feel 100% comfortable just being exactly who they are in that moment, and that they can, you know, try some good beer and hang out with their friends and family, and maybe learn something about beer.
Most statistics show that the vast majority of sexual harassment and gender-based moments of violence that take place will be between the hundreds and hundreds of customers you’ll have a night and all the staff that you have. It’s a place where anybody in hospitality is at risk—far greater than in most environments they might work in. You have this no tolerance clause for harassment amongst employees, but how have you explored that between employees and customers in a similar way?
We had an incident, this was maybe a year and a half ago, between a customer and another customer. There was a woman in the restroom who was, you know, just doing her business, and she looked up and there was a man standing on a toilet in the next stall looking down on her. Super creepy, totally inappropriate, and not OK. And she came out very upset, obviously, and mentioned something to her server, who immediately felt empowered. I feel good about the fact that we have created a culture of empowerment in our staff to make sure it is a safe space for everybody. Because Annie, who was our manager at the time, walked directly up to the gentlemen who had been standing in the bathroom stall being a creep, and said, “I’m going to need you to leave immediately. I don’t care what your bill is, just get out. You’re not welcome here anymore. This is not OK.” And she was able to get him out of the building immediately. And she also talked to the woman who had experienced that and made sure that she felt safe and communicated with her as directly as possible: “This gentlemen has been removed from the building. I am so very sorry this happened to you. What can we do to make you feel better and more comfortable? We are here for you. What do you need from us?” I feel very good about that. And that is how we try and translate how we create a safe and welcoming environment in every step of a customer’s experience here, as well as staff members.
That didn’t happen by accident. What recommendations would you give to a brewery owner hoping to create that sense of empowerment in their own staff?
So we do quarterly meetings every year. During those meetings, we go over the principles we believe in. We emphasize that this is an inclusive environment and that everyone is accepted here, and that you treat every single person with respect and you greet every single person as much as you possibly can when they walk in. And you are absolutely empowered to not allow creepiness to exist in this building. This is a safe space across the board. We do trainings, we try to communicate as clearly as possible to people, and support people, and back them up. So when a manager makes a decision, and says, “This person was being creepy, I had to remove them,” we back people up. We tell them, “You know what? You made the right decision, and thank you for doing that and creating a safe environment for everyone here.”
You have a role on the Brewers Association’s Diversity Committee. What is your personal hope, not to speak for the committee, or the BA, but in your particular role in your capacity on that board, what do you hope that one or some of the outcomes might be from creating the diversity committee at the BA?
Number one, I think the fact that the diversity committee was created in the first place is a testament that the BA understands that it is an issue that needs to be addressed. It needs to be worked on, and resources need to be put behind it. It can’t just be, “Oh we created this diversity committee and we’re looking at things, and there it is.” There has to actually be financial resources put behind it. And I know that the BA is going to do that, and has done some of that already.
I know that the BA in the coming months is going to be releasing more information about some of the more concrete stuff that we have done behind the scenes. My hope is that in the next year or two, if not beyond that, there are more public-interacting and public-facing initiatives that we take that not only increase what diversity looks like within the industry, [not just for the] folks that are working for the breweries, the retailers or distributors, etc., but also our consumers.
Effort is needed to increase diversity in the consumer market. I think it is important on both fronts. It’s not just straight, white men who drink beer. I can’t emphasize that enough. There are so many people who drink beer, there are so many people out there who just don’t know that they like to drink beer, but they do. We need a much stronger effort to bring those folks into our industry and have them work with us, and treat them well, and treat them with respect, and train them, and give the ample resources and opportunities to grow in their careers, but we also need to make the same effort toward the consumer market. We need to make sure we are expanding the number of folks who want to go out and pay the extra couple bucks for the six pack of the local craft beer as opposed to macro beer. I think it is really important from a business perspective, and I know that I keep harkening back to this, but also from a human being perspective. I believe that if you put the human being perspective in front of everything you do, that’s just going to be good business no matter what.