OPINION: Furloughed bartender plants hope with a sip of paradise

Atlanta bartender Keyatta Mincey-Parker goes from mixing drinks to planting gardens. (Courtesy of Bombay Sapphire)
Atlanta bartender Keyatta Mincey-Parker goes from mixing drinks to planting gardens. (Courtesy of Bombay Sapphire)

Credit: Courtesy of Bombay Sapphire

Credit: Courtesy of Bombay Sapphire

For weeks after the coronavirus forced local bars to shutter, Keyatta Mincey-Parker was like a lot of us, drinking her blues away.

She worried if the furlough she’d been forced into was temporary or if it meant the end of a long career bartending, one that had taken her from Mexico to London and cemented her as one of this city’s top mixologists.

She solidified her place as a top cocktail industry innovator earlier this year when she competed in Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition, beating out hundreds of bartenders across North America to make it to the finals and placing third in the final round of competition.

Keyatta Mincey-Parker mixes drinks early this year. (Courtesy of Bombay Sapphire)
Keyatta Mincey-Parker mixes drinks early this year. (Courtesy of Bombay Sapphire)

Credit: Photo courtesy Bombay Sapphire

Credit: Photo courtesy Bombay Sapphire

It was her third time competing. In a nod to her Southern belle mom and strong African father, she created a cocktail called Eve’s Pot Liquor, which includes a mix of green apples, collard greens and gin.

“I made top 100, then final 12,” she said.

Mincey-Parker also spent a week in London learning and drawing inspiration from the Bombay Sapphire distillery, the culture and cocktail scene. She toured the queen’s garden.

“It was life-changing,” she said. “All of these things were a part of my vision.”

It’s important to note here that as much joy as creating bright, vibrant drinks has brought to her life, Mincey-Parker is a staunch advocate for the responsible consumption of alcohol.

She’s also aware that a good many of us are drinking more than ever. Yes, it’s another evil the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought, but overindulging for long periods of times isn’t a good thing, especially if it’s affecting your day-to-day life or you find yourself engaging in risky behaviors, she said.

“That’s true for anything. Everybody has to reset, regroup and move on.”

Three weeks into the pandemic, the 42-year-old wife and mother of three knew she had to either reset or her family might starve.

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She decided to refocus her attention on the community garden she’d started building months earlier near her home in East Atlanta.

Sip of Paradise, the name a fellow bartender gave the quarter-acre plot, began as a way for her and fellow bartenders to destress and nourish her love of incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables in the cocktails she created.

Early in March, volunteers turned out to cut back and clean up, and ready to plant.

Then COVID-19 hit, forcing them inside. Pink slips followed.

After weeks of licking her wounds, Mincey-Parker doubled down, summoning the cavalry back to the land.

In all, about 30 bartenders from across metro Atlanta joined the effort.

Most had been furloughed like Mincey-Parker and were eager for a way to channel their time and energy.

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“It was very physically demanding cleaning up the land, preparing the soil to plant, and planting,” she said. “But we pushed through.”

They mapped out nearly a dozen plots and walkways using stones and bricks they carved from the land. People donated plywood, compost and seedlings.

“It was an amazing thing to see my community coming together to achieve a common goal,” she said. “It gave us something to look forward to, a reason to feel hopeful when everything else around us was so uncertain.”

Atlanta bartender Keyatta Mincey-Parker tends the community garden near her home in East Atlanta. (Courtesy of Jenna Shea Photography)
Atlanta bartender Keyatta Mincey-Parker tends the community garden near her home in East Atlanta. (Courtesy of Jenna Shea Photography)

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jenna Shea Photography

Credit: Photo courtesy of Jenna Shea Photography

They planted flowers: zinnias, sunflowers and marigolds. They planted herbs: lavender, basil and camomile. And fruits and vegetables: pomegranate, nectarines, tomatoes, cabbage and kale.

As Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country in the wake of the George Floyd killing, it became a kind of safe haven where they gathered to get away from the tension and relax even for just a few hours.

Some days it looked like one big party as they worked and swayed to the music beating from portable boomboxes.

In May, the garden officially became a registered nonprofit with some 34 members, each with a plot to grow foods and herbs to eat, create with, test in cocktail recipes, or trade with other members. Crops from the seven remaining plots are shared with the surrounding community.

If Mincey-Parker has her way, Sip of Paradise gardens will become part of city landscapes across the world. New York. Miami. San Francisco. Liberia.

“There is talk already of the next one,” Mincey-Parker said.

Doesn’t surprise me.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Coronavirus fears and hopes are creating a new legion of home vegetable gardeners. They’ve been popping up on my Facebook feeds for months. Some for their mental health. Some out of necessity. Some to create outdoor activity with children stuck at home.

Will the trend survive the current pandemic?

For Mincey-Parker, the answer is yes.

She recently got the call to return to work at Bon Ton, a popular Midtown restaurant, where she has spent three years until being furloughed.

Clearly her bartending days aren’t over, and neither is gardening. For her, one could never exist without the other.

Not surprisingly, she added another ingredient to the mix recently, incorporating wellness events like Meditation Mondays and Yoga in, where else, the garden.

“We have plans for 2021 to include more events to educate about spirits and gardening as well as more wellness programs,” she said. “I’m so excited.”

Sounds like fun.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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