Leading Ladies: Five women taking Columbus’ bar scene to the next level

By Columbus Alive
From the October 17, 2013 edition

Women have long contributed to Columbus culture, whether it’s arts, music, business, politics or any number of fields. Liz Lessner of Columbus Food League or Jeni Britton Bauer with Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams are shining — and obvious — examples of those who’ve transformed our city’s expectations when it comes to eating, drinking and how to start groundbreaking ventures.

In a bar and nightlife culture that’s becoming more sophisticated and exciting, women are the leaders. The ladies are so dynamic, so impactful that they’re setting trends, actively taking leadership roles and becoming the backbone behind many successful bar programs and businesses.

So Alive spoke with five women — and it could’ve been many more — leading Columbus’ nightlife culture in innovative directions. Some have been successful and trailblazers for years. Others have made an impression in a short time. Each talked about approaches that lead to success, their thoughts on women having a substantial influence on the industry and how they plan to be leaders for others.

The right place

Is there a specific reason women are so vital to Columbus’ nightlife industry? No. But Columbus could simply be a city ripe with opportunity for anyone.

“I wouldn’t have any notion as to why, but I think one of the greatest things about Columbus is that it’s such an equal-opportunity city,” said Annie Williams.

At 25, Williams is the youngest of the women featured in this article, but she’s done a lot in two-and-a-half years. After getting her first bartending job in 2011, Williams quickly moved up to head the cocktail program at Brothers Drake Meadery & Bar and then The Crest Gastropub. In September Williams was a national finalist in the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender contest.

Williams believes the city and the owners and businesses she’s worked for have facilitated her career because she, like so many, is looking to make a mark.

“Columbus is such an open place to anyone who is creative, passionate and wants to bring something new to the table,” Williams said. “As a city we’re so receptive and excited about that, that it doesn’t need any parameters such as age or gender.”

Jen Burton, co-owner of The Barrel and Bottle, a specialty beer and wine shop in the North Market, and Seventh Son Brewing, believes women everywhere are successful thanks to their drive and vision. And maybe more so in Columbus.

“A lot of really creative women live in Columbus and have that entrepreneurial spirit,” Burton said. “They exist everywhere; maybe it’s just more proportionally in Columbus. That’s not a coincidence, that’s just how it is.”

A rising tide

Carmen Owens, co-founder of Columbus Food League and owner of two of the group’s restaurants (Surly Girl Saloon and Grass Skirt Tiki Room) feels the industry has been improved by a leadership style that invites collaboration.

“It comes back to everyone being pretty equal and has to work hard [in] their part of the job,” Owens said. “We’re essentially a team. That’s the basic philosophy you work from.”

Burton cites Lessner and Britton Bauer as people who’ve set good examples of how to make an impact not just on the industry, but the city as a whole. “[They’re] so pro-Columbus-I’m-changing-this-city.”

This collective, community effort has fostered a nightlife culture in Columbus that’s excited about craft beer, spirits and cocktails, and interested in keeping up with trends. There’s a sense of camaraderie within the industry because it behooves all involved.

This was reiterated by everyone featured in the article, but Nicolene Schwartz specifically called attention to this atmosphere. As one of the city’s most respected mixologists, Schwartz consults and creates menus for Arch City Tavern, Novak’s Tavern, Rigsby’s Kitchen and MoJoe Lounge.

She also released her Roake line earlier this year; a dozen or so premixed tonic syrups and elixirs for producing top-notch recipes found behind a number of bars in Columbus. And through all her interaction in the industry, she sees a major commonality.

“There’s definitely a community atmosphere. It seems like everyone genuinely feels a rising tide lifts all boats,” Schwartz said.

The national effect

While all interviewed pointed to Columbus’ mindset and excitement about the burgeoning nightlife scene as a factor, Cris Dehlavi, head bartender at M at Miranova, has seen more women leaders on a national level too.

Dehlavi recently attended the final stage of the Beverage Alcohol Resource (B.A.R.) Educational Program, the highest level of certification in mixology in the world. Think master sommelier, only with spirits instead of wine.

September’s B.A.R. had the most women, 17 out of 50, participate since the program’s inception seven years ago. And out of the four chapter presidents in United States Bartenders Guild’s (USBG) present, three were women.

“There’s definitely a lot of very driven women out there right now in this industry,” Dehlavi said. “I’m not necessarily sure why that is, but I definitely see it happening.”

Dehlavi has been a leader in the nightlife industry for more than a decade. She’s headed the bar at M for 11 years, is a brand ambassador for Cooper Spirits, and is president of the Southern Ohio Chapter of the USBG. As Columbus’ most experienced mixologist — winning a number of competitions, consulting around the country and mentoring countless others — Dehlavi’s changed the local industry. Others are now having a similar effect.

“It’s actually something I’m seeing more. A lot of the big names out there, the brand ambassadors, are women more and more,” Dehlavi said.

Follow the leaders

If one had to point to why these women are leading Columbus’ nightlife scene, it comes down to their strong work ethic, imagination and dedication to mentorship. All talked at length about how someone was there to encourage and educate them along the way. All intend, and feel expected, to provide that same support.

“I think [teaching] is a really important thing,” Schwartz said. “I had to ask at some point and now you have to ask me. And I’m happy to tell you.”

Besides being a resource for information and feedback, these women also plan to be an inspiration. Owens said hard work is always required, but seeing others’ dedication and resulting achievement makes anything seem possible.

“The pioneers are those who go out there without the model,” Owens said. “Then you get the next wave of people that [look at what] they’re doing to be successful.”

Photos by Meghan Ralston