How to Have a Ball

by Amanda Schuster


“Raise your hand if you know someone who was directly affected by Sandy.”

This was the question asked by Michele Neff Hernandez, founder of Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation and sister of Ward III/Rum House proprietor Michael Neff, as she addressed the crowd at the Bartender’s Ball in New York City.

Nearly every hand was raised.

We know the far-reaching and deadly outcome of the slow moving storm known as Sandy that pummeled the east coast on the evening of October 29th. Weeks later, as winter approaches, many residents in the tri-state area are still left without basic human necessities like shelter, nourishment and warmth. Once electricity was restored to lower Manhattan and the familiar rumble of the subway could be felt beneath the city’s collective feet, the national media all but abandoned the story for the juicy details of the General Petraeus scandal. But the struggles in the wake of Sandy are far from over. The call to action has been a moving thing to behold, as those more fortunate all over the world have reacted in meaningful ways to help those affected. One of the most inspiring efforts of all was led by the New York City bar community.

On Monday, November 26th, the Bartender’s Ball was held at the Bowery Hotel in partnership with Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, with 100% of proceeds funding Sandy relief efforts. “The goal was to raise as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, identifying smaller charities that are working on the ground – not just the Red Cross,” said Michael Neff. That and “throw a really great party” that was worth the $100 price of admission and would inspire even more giving.

Do the Rockaways know it’s Christmas? Think of the Bartender’s Ball as the bar community’s equivalent to Bob Geldof’s Band Aid. Never mind who among them was the Geldof, the Midge Ure or even the Boy George. The point is, Neff, and Ward III/Rum House partners Kenneth McCoy and Nino Cirabisi along with George Ruotolo of Whiskey Tavern/Whiskey Town and Frank Cisneros of Bourgeois Pig and Dram persuaded “the troops” to volunteer and donate, some of whom were even still in recovery mode themselves. In under two weeks, they managed to pull off a luminous event that had it all - delicious libations, plenty of great grub, snappy music, valuable raffle prizes and yes, even boobies (thanks to some very cheekily tasteful Burlesque performances.) Throughout the evening, there were an estimated 500 attendees, who all looked pretty snazzy.

The fellas not only pulled it off, but they raised nearly $45,000.

So how did they do it? 

The venue was arranged by Cirabisi, who is good friends with Kirk Wilson, the GM of the Bowery Hotel, which generously offered up the ample, elegant space and personnel. A group of local vendors was going to serve the food, but because so much of downtown Manhattan was still recovering from the days-long power outage and massive loss of revenue, or in some cases, other event donations, the source was eventually changed exclusively to Bowery Hotel restaurant, Gemma.

Cirabisi pointed out that bartenders have an inherent ability to “deal with chaos and take curveballs.” In a given night they might encounter anything from a broken ice machine, to a kicked keg, to a difficult or passed out patron, to an electrical short, to a bathroom flood, sometimes all at once, and customers still get their drinks. Bartenders are well equipped to handle the details of such an event with all bases covered.

Word quickly disseminated among a vast network that not only includes those who work in bars, but those who supply them. According to Cirabisi, so many people responded that at a certain point, there were actually too many volunteers and some had to be turned down. So they participated by purchasing blocks of full priced tickets, as did the New York City chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBGNY) Busy brand managers assisted by working with their legal departments to speed up the donation approval process so the booze could be legit and on time.

The code of a good bartender also manifests in relationships with customers who can offer their services in other ways, such as social media marketing, journalistic clout and fundraising abilities. The audience at the event was noticeably diverse because of this, not the same familiar faces in the cocktail crowd. But for the evening, at least, everyone there was officially part of the bar industry and could partake in its rituals. Along with the cocktails, they also had bartender’s choice of beer, picklebacks, and Fernet Branca shots.  

As McCoy mentioned, one of the keys to the Ball’s success was cross-pollination marketing on the Internet. Outside websites and high profile blogs paid considerable attention, while on social media, the ticketing link went viral.

Of course, as Cirabisi said, “Great causes are not always the best parties…” This was the exception. Participating bars included Employees Only, Death and Company, Dutch Kills, Dram, Weather Up Tribeca, The Whiskey Brooklyn, PDT, Ward III and the Bowery Hotel, all with a star-studded cast of volunteer bartenders. To use professional terminology, the drinks sure didn’t suck. Neither did the food.

But the shining star of the night was Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, which has a long-term commitment to rebuilding damaged communities and a proven record of making donations count by distributing them accordingly. Without them, none of the evening’s glamour and entertainment could have the right impact.   

Cirabisi is already looking toward doing it all over again next year, and for the same cause. “This time in 2013 people will still need help rebuilding after Sandy. We can’t abandon them.” 

We look forward to attending another fabulous party that makes us feel good inside and out. Until then, as the holidays approach and “civilians” have time off to be with their families and friends, think of those who keep working to ensure we’re all having a happy and a merry. Consider what our service industry, not just in New York but globally, has done for those who no longer have a hall to deck and what they do for us on a regular basis. Be kind. Be patient. Tip them well. They deserve it.  


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