Fighting For Our Lives
The story of how a little cocktail competition on the west side of Toronto changed the world... well maybe not the world but still.
The pandemic sucked. On yelp I'd give it a 1-star. Terrible time. Felt isolated. Wouldn’t recommend it.
I’m also acutely aware that telling a story about a local cocktail competition in the midst of COVID can feel self-indulgent or worse, tone deaf. So I ask for a little leeway and if I don’t stick the landing, I’m new at this and not Simone Biles.
The concept for Bar Fight is a simple one. We get two bartenders from around Toronto and see who can make the best cocktail with a pre-selected spirit and theme. $12 gets you 2 craft cocktails (we know, it’s an insane deal) and a voting poker chip. You vote for your favourite cocktail (or favourite bartender) by dropping the chip in the corresponding jar and the winner gets a prize. On some occasions we donate to a local charity.
Bar Fight was an immediate success. It felt like every staff member that had the day off showed up and put down. Every time we threw another one, more bartenders wanted to join. We were ambitious–dare I say cocky–asking some of the most well known people in the industry to participate. Some people who initially said they didn’t want to fight couldn’t resist when they saw the pandemonium at Death & Taxes on an off Monday night. Of course it helped that most of the people in the pub were in hospitality and Baby Huey’s (a popular bar nearby) had one of the most bumping industry nights so the dovetailing began. Our 11th Bar Fight was an all-time partnering of Robin Goodfellow (Bar Raval, Pretty Ugly, Vela) and Iain Griffiths (Supernova Ballroom) on March 2nd, 2022.
It would be 2 weeks later when the world as we know it would change forever when the NBA cancelled the remainder of their season. Oh, and the WHO officially announced there was global pandemic.
In May of 2022 we decided to give Bar Fight another go but we were in a different place as a company and industry. Mentally people were just getting used to being in large groups again, our staff–now almost completely new–didn’t know anything about Bar Fight and the hospitality community felt fractured as everyone was just trying to survive. Like the NBA bubble season, these were not ideal conditions to bring back our most consistently successful event.
We knew we had to get staff buy-in so we recruited two talented staff members to battle it out. A budding mixologist from Belfast Love and an Irish barman from The Walrus ensured that they would get their teammates out in support. The ace in our pocket was that we were going to launch it just days before St. Patrick’s Day.
The short of it is that it worked. Friends and coworkers showed up in droves. With no industry night, people stayed longer and enjoyed themselves more. So we tried it again a month and half later, pitting two sister bars against each other (Piccolo Caffe e Vino and Melrose) and they crushed. A few weeks later we brought in some hospitality all-stars (Liam Callaghan & Joe “Broadhands” Brosnan) and we nearly burned down the place. Month after month the crowds are still growing and drinking.
We are close to finalizing a partnership with an alcohol brand which includes merch, promotion and increased compensation to our bartenders. Our most ambitious effort–in the not too distant future– is when we will assemble past winners for the Bar Fight Battle Kir Royal (working title) in early 2023.
We’re back and all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our community. When we wanted to try again, vendors said yes. When we asked our staff to throw it down, they did. When we nudged the industry to show up, they came, without reservation.
“Where we go from here is up to the community.”
Bar Fight is our baby but it isn’t perfect. We haven’t done a good enough job with female representation and we are dedicated to having at least one woman in every fight. Service can slip at peak times and we are still working on making sure guests don’t wait too long for drinks. Bit by bit we are getting better.
As our community grows and changes, we will prosper and adapt with it. Where we go from here is up to the community. We thought we were leading this journey but we were just following the cars up ahead.