How pandemic furloughs helped Atlanta bartenders rediscover life’s passions

Bartender Cole Youngner is now working in communications and research at the CDC. Courtesy of Cole Youngner
Bartender Cole Youngner is now working in communications and research at the CDC. Courtesy of Cole Youngner

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

A year ago, the pandemic resulted in bartenders being furloughed, or having their jobs eliminated, as many bars and restaurants closed indefinitely. Even when places reopened with limited capacity, there weren’t enough shifts to go around, or tips to stay afloat financially, in addition to workers facing possible exposure to COVID-19.

There is no one way to ride out a pandemic; some waited to return to their jobs or looked for new revenue streams. For others, though, the downtime illuminated their true calling, and gave them that necessary push to seek it out.

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Rori Robinson, Keyatta Mincey Jones and Stephanie Saputo run the nonprofit A Sip of Paradise community garden, which became a place of refuge for Atlanta bartenders during the pandemic. Courtesy of Rori Robinson
Rori Robinson, Keyatta Mincey Jones and Stephanie Saputo run the nonprofit A Sip of Paradise community garden, which became a place of refuge for Atlanta bartenders during the pandemic. Courtesy of Rori Robinson

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Rori Robinson can recount the day like it just happened. She was working as a bartender at the Painted Pin and was starting a new position at Likewise, inside Citizen Supply Co.

“It was March 16 … it was a Monday,” she said. Citizen Supply announced an indefinite shutdown. The same day, the Painted Pin sent out an email, also saying it was closing indefinitely.

Robinson, who always had been a home gardener, became part of a team Keyatta Mincey Parker put together for her idea: A Sip of Paradise garden.

The community garden is a wellness haven for bartenders — a place to recharge, get outside and grow food, flowers and herbs for home and for bartending. Bit by bit, the garden took off, with compost bins, donated coffee grounds and a commercial shared kitchen. All plots are spoken for, and the gardeners often do pop-up events or workshops on the grounds.

“People are so proud … starting from seed, nurturing plants, and featuring them in their cocktails,” Robinson said. “It’s been a tremendous joy.”

Through her involvement with the garden, she decided to launch Bloom Bar Beverage Service and Bloom Bar Garnish Co. her own line of plant-based mixers, garnishes, herbal teas, and spice and sugar blends.

“We’re really in this for the long haul,” she said.

Cole Youngner was just hitting his stride as a bartender at Aziza a year ago, getting recognition in competitions and learning under mentor Demario Wallace, but the restaurant shut down. Months later, when Aziza was reopening to in-person dining, Youngner was uncomfortable with the uncertainty.

During this downtime, he had lots of conversations with others about diversity, inclusion and mental health in the industry.

“In that regard, it has been good, and there is value in the pandemic for me,” he said.

He now is putting his master’s degree in public health to good use, working in communications, writing and researching infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I still want to do something related to hospitality and cocktails, but in a balance that is sustainable to me,” Youngner said, adding that he has come up with some of the best cocktails he’s ever created, while being at home.

Kiara Austin's Kron_icles ice cream and confections company took off during the pandemic. Courtesy of Kiara Austin
Kiara Austin's Kron_icles ice cream and confections company took off during the pandemic. Courtesy of Kiara Austin

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Kiara “Kiki” Austin was working as wine captain at Aix and Tin Tin when the pandemic hit; work slowed, and the staff was scaled down.

At home, she devoted time to experimenting with an ice cream machine she got while in culinary school.

“All the ideas I had been sitting on became so much more accessible,” Austin said. She started out making ice cream for her family and friends, creating flavors like red velvet, coquito and sorrel sorbet, along with cookies and caramels. Making treats for ice cream lovers made them happy and, in turn, made her realize her passion.

The time at home led her to launch her business, Kron_icles.

“It felt like I was in school, challenging myself and reaching out to other friends to share recipes and techniques,” she said. “I became my own boss, learning along the way.”

Austin plans on growing her business and continuing to focus on wine, hoping to blend the two.

Daniel Keith stands beside the truck that was his home on a cross-country road trip. There is a sticker for each place he camped.
Angela Hansberger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Daniel Keith stands beside the truck that was his home on a cross-country road trip. There is a sticker for each place he camped. Angela Hansberger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Angela Hansberger

Credit: Angela Hansberger

Daniel Keith was beverage director at Hotel Clermont when the pandemic hit. He described the first month as stressful and confusing, because of the unknown characteristics of the virus, as well as the swiftness with which he lost his job.

“It was the week before my birthday and I was furloughed,” he said. “I went from being busy to dead quiet.”

After a lot of alone time, and days with his parents, he thought, “You know, I’ve never driven cross-country.”

The pandemic “gave me the push I needed to get away,” he said.

On Aug. 19, after a bit of research and work on his truck, he gathered some old camping equipment his dad had and turned the key.

“I didn’t really have a plan, other than I wanted to go west,” Keith said.

He camped across the country, going to sleep with, and waking up with, the sun — something he never had experienced in 10 years of working in restaurants and going to sleep in the early morning.

“I was going to look for something, but I didn’t know what,” he said.

His priorities shifted while on the road. While he visited places like the Badlands, Moab and Slab City, he thought about his life’s purpose.

“I know that I don’t want to work in restaurants anymore,” he said. “My eyes were open to how mentally unhealthy it is, and I’m putting it in my rear-view mirror.”

Traveling 14,000 miles in two months, and meeting other nomads, sparked in him the desire to pursue podcasting.

“There are issues in the world always, and still good people in the world,” Keith said. “There is still faith to be had in humanity.”

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