Ex-Bottle Shop employees organize pop-up cocktail bars after mass resignation
Brock Kalbfleisch feels like a hermit crab without a shell.
It's a metaphor, of course, but for months now Kalbfleisch has been a bartender without a bar to tend since he was fired from The Bottle Shop, a cocktail bar and market in the University District, in June. In response to Kalbfleisch's dismissal, seven Bottle Shop employees quit in solidarity.
"All jobs and work are deserving of respect and dignity," the 34-year-old said. "What we're doing as employees is representative of a change going on, not just in Columbus, but across the country."
Kalbfleisch and the rest of the wayward staff have since formed the "Walkout Collective," an eight-member collaboration that has hosted a handful of well-attended pop-up cocktail events across the city beginning in July. Their efforts represent a larger trend of how service industry employees in Columbus are fighting for better pay, working conditions and workplace environments in a post-pandemic era, experts say.
What led to the walk out at the Bottle Shop?
The Bottle Shop functions as equal parts patio, carryout store and bohemian cocktail lounge — complete with a film movie projector and the smell of incense. Nestled at the intersection of the Short North, University District and Victorian Village neighborhoods, it has been busy since owners Barbara Reynolds and German Vasquez bought the building in 2015.
But in the months leading up to the mass resignations, former employees say that busy atmosphere turned chaotic. After clashing with Reynolds and Vasquez, Kalbfleisch said he was fired in June after six years of working at the bar and three and a half years serving as its manager.
“It was kind of this perfect storm,” Kalbfleisch said.
Reynolds wrote in an email to The Dispatch that she and Vasquez were in talks with several staff members to sell The Bottle Shop to their employees — it's currently listed for sale at $400,000 — when negotiations turned sour.
"Brock Kalbfleisch was put on a sabbatical so he could deal with his personal issues," Reynolds wrote. "He subsequently quit."
Kalbfleisch maintains he was fired for speaking up against what he called The Bottle Shop's untenable working conditions. Multiple ex-employees told The Dispatch the bar was understaffed, Reynolds and Vasquez were largely absent, and staff were not being compensated for larger workloads.
Service industry workers fighting for better pay, working conditions
It was the kind of management that people in the service industry are no longer willing to tolerate in a post-pandemic world, collective member Nan Meece said.
Meece, a former Bottle Shop bartender who uses she/they pronouns, said in the months leading up to the mass resignation they saw a shift in the way Reynolds and Vasquez operated.
"Despite getting the idea from the owners that we were a family, there were discrepancies with tipping, inconsistencies with raises and a lack of communication," Meece said.
The former Bottle Shop employees aren't the first service industry workers in Columbus to stage a walkout against management.
In June 2020, Northstar Cafe’s Short North and Westerville service and bar staff walked out after the restaurant reinstated a discount for police officers, days after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police and social justice groups in Columbus protested across the city.
And in February 2021, employees of Platform Beer Co.’s Columbus taproom, at 408 N. Sixth St., staged a walkout after frustrations with ownership boiled over. In an open letter, signed by “The entire Columbus Taproom Staff” and addressed to Platform Beer co-owner Justin Carson, employees alleged the steps Platform Columbus took to mitigate COVID-19 were done without regard to employee safety.
Keirsten Moore, a professor of business and associate provost of learning at Capital University, said that while she hasn't researched whether mass resignations are more common following the pandemic, there is evidence that other forms of collective action have increased.
Moore said employees often organize unions for the same reasons they quit or walk out: poor working conditions, lower total compensation (pay and benefits), understaffing, excessive workload, unrealistic productivity expectations, lack of psychological or physical safety, mismanagement and inequitable or unfair human resources policies.
"As part of 'The Great Resignation' we are seeing a reshuffling of employees across industries," Moore said. "Employees in front-line positions hit hardest by the pandemic are finding more incentive and opportunity to move to positions and industries where they perceive an improvement in these working conditions."
It rings true to industry veterans like 27-year-old Meece, who said much of the service industry is viewed as expendable.
"It doesn't matter how successful your business is if you don't treat your staff well," they said.
Connecting with customers, looking toward the future
The Walkout Collective's first event drew hundreds of people to The Market: Food & Drink in Italian Village on a Monday evening in July. Some stood in a line that snaked down East Third Street for an hour, if not two.
The past two pop-ups were staged at Parable Coffee, a gratuity-free coffee shop Downtown on South High Street, that brought in dozens of customers loyal to the former Bottle Shop staff.
“They not only remember your name or remember you from past experiences, but oftentimes they remember your favorite drink or the wine you like," said Emily Malone, a customer at the Sept. 12 Parable event. "They make you feel welcome and special.”
Others attendees, like Damon DiSabato, have made a point of not returning to The Bottle Shop since the mass resignation out of respect for its former employees.
"I went to The Bottle Shop for the drinks," he said. "And I know that (the staff) are deeply involved in making the drinks and creating recipes. I always said that when I go to Bottle Shop, I’m going to the best cocktail bar in Columbus. I didn’t go there for the owner; I went there for the bartenders.”
The Walkout Collective has accomplished its first goal: remaining together and furthering cocktail culture. Ultimately, though, its members want to find a permanent space that encourages diversity in community and spirits — quite literally — as well as lifting up women and queer folks, Meece said.
"I would love to see us create more intention in a space that's historically chaotic," they added.
For now, the collective will keep hosting pop-ups. The next event will be an ode to Halloween at Dirty Dungarees — a laundromat and a bar in the Old North neighborhood — on Oct. 31.
Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.
Monroe Trombly covers breaking and trending news for The Dispatch.