Christina Veira on diversity in Toronto's hospitality industry

Christina Veira, director of programming at Toronto Cocktail Week, discusses systemic racism and the lack of diversity in the hospitality industry, showing us that real change is a movement – not a moment. 

Christina Veira, director of programming at Toronto Cocktail Week

Christina Veira is Toronto Cocktail Week's director of programming; she's the bar and beverage curator at Restaurants Canada; and she's a spirits educator for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Which means she's kind of badass. It also means she knows a thing or two about the hospitality industry.

As a true insider, she tells us why we need to stop separating the hospitality industry from societal structures; why you can't tackle racism without fighting classism and sexism; and how we can take our first steps on the path the change.

For more ideas on how to work towards a more diverse hospitality industry, read our commitment to Black Lives Matter

On systemic racism in the industry

We do a disservice when we talk about the hospitality industry as if it’s separate from society and its structures. You can’t tackle racism in hospitality if you don’t tackle classism or sexism, because they’re related.

Because of tips, our industry has more or less handed the financial burden of compensation to guests, who have no social contract with our employees – guests who might have their own biases. A white guy might be more successful as a sommelier in a certain environment because of the clientele.

We often want to divorce conversations about dining culture from conversations about work culture, because we don’t want to hurt diners’ feelings.

On hospitality’s lack of diversity

The common excuse you’ll get is, “We don’t get a lot of Black people applying,” or, “We hire the people that are the best for the job,” or, “We’re very demanding.”

Most people don’t come out and say, “I don’t hire Black men behind the bar because they intimidate people.” Hiring friends of friends who remind them of themselves is valued over experience in the hospitality industry – and that will naturally limit the staff that people get.

A lot of people of colour don’t apply to places because they don’t expect to get hired anyway.

On the experience of being overlooked

I’ve received national awards, but I’m still asked questions in interviews that they would never ask a white man with half the experience. Questions about temperament or if I can handle the volume. Sometimes people don’t know why they’re not respecting your experience, or they’ve never really thought about it – which makes it even harder.

Plenty of cocktail bars brag about playing hip hop. It’s one thing to do that with white women, but try playing hip hop with only Black and Brown men as your bartenders and see how cute it is. If guests see two tall Black men behind the bar serving $18 cocktails, will they want to spend that amount of money? A lot of people just don’t want to engage with the idea that some people don’t.

"Try playing hip hop with only Black and Brown men as your bartenders and see how cute it is"

On the manager’s dilemma

I don’t actually believe that you ever hire the best person for the job. You hire based on a series of criteria and try to guess who makes the most sense, probability-wise. Hospitality doesn’t always like to coach people, so if you don’t have time to train, who are you most likely to hire? Somebody who is similar to you or has some of the same cultural touchstones.

I empathize if managers are feeling overwhelmed or blindsided. At best, you were probably taught how to be in charge and good with spreadsheets – and how not to be a raging asshole – but nobody told you to be thoughtful on social issues.

On the future of representation

I don’t think everything has to change tomorrow because that would be a false change. There are real systemic reasons why some people haven’t been given the opportunity to foster and develop these skills because they’ve been shut out. We have to engage with what real mentorship, training and onboarding looks like going forward. When we get there we will have leadership that looks, hopefully, more like the communities we’re in.

In Toronto, the staff that we’re served by in those more Western, hipster places, should look like our city. We want to see more Black, Indigenous, female staff – people of all identities. But you have to understand that will come with its own tensions and difficulties in the growing period.

If guests always assume that the white guy is the manager, they may not trust minorities (including visibly gender non-conforming individuals) in certain roles. We have to look at true systemic change and find leaders who want to engage with those identities when they choose to mentor people.

Check out other guest columns from some of Toronto's leading chefs, like this conversation with Guy Rawlings about why sustainability isn't just a trend, or Ted Corrado on cannabistronomy.