Second Acts: Cocktail Queen

Ann Tuennerman once ran a dog-biscuit bakery. Now her conference on cocktails attracts thousands of bartenders and revelers every year 

by Amy Zavatto
ann tuennerman leaning against a bar image
Tuennerman borrowed $125,000 and used all her savings, including her 401(k), to relaunch Tales of the Cocktail in 2006.
Photograph: Rush Jagoe

At 8 one morning in July, Ann Tuennerman strides into a conference room in New Orleans’s historic Hotel Monteleone. It’s the day before the kickoff of Tales of the Cocktail—or Tales, as bartending cognoscenti call it—the convention Tuennerman founded 10 years ago, which has since become the cocktail industry’s premier event. Over the next five days, Tales will host 60 seminars and serve 7,793 bottles of liquor (mixed, shaken or stirred) to 23,000 mixologists, bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts who have descended on New Orleans from around the world.

“Stand up!” she says to the 49 staff members, some lolling on the floor, others still trickling into the room. Many are interns or seasonal staff and very young. “We’ve got to get motivated! When we say the meeting starts at 8 am, we do not mean 8:02! You have been handpicked, and you need to be on your game.” She speaks with a lilting Southern drawl, so what comes out of her mouth sounds sweet even though it’s stern.

Fifteen minutes later, meeting concluded, Tuennerman zips through the lobby, back to her temporary office on the hotel’s mezzanine, gold flip-flops thwacking. She stops to talk to Jeff Grdinich, who’s in charge of doling out hundreds of different cocktails in two-ounce shots to attendees. At the registration room, she gives a pep talk and instructions to the nine-person crew. “Don’t leave your post without letting someone know!” she says. By 9:55, new lipstick applied, flip-flops swapped for heels, Tuennerman is comfortably ensconced at a table in the hotel’s bar for a TV interview. “I was inspired by a passion for New Orleans dining and drinking,” she tells the newscaster. “There was nothing that celebrated all the famous cocktails started here.”

Born and raised in New Orleans, Tuennerman graduated from the University of New Orleans with a marketing degree in 1986 and took a job doing -promotions for local radio and television stations. “I had no budget, so I learned how to find partners and make events happen,” she says. Her productions attracted a lot of attention. “But I’d pitch ideas, and the powers that be would say, ‘We can’t do that.’ And, you know, I don’t fall in line that well. I wanted to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it!”

After marrying her first husband in 1993, Tuennerman began to look elsewhere to satisfy her boundary-pushing, entrepreneurial side. In 1997, with help from her mother and a loan from the Small Business Administration, she bought a dog-biscuit-bakery franchise called Three Dog Bakery. She launched it in New Orleans using the kind of event-based, buzz-generating ideas that she loved, like opening pop-up shops in the local mall. “But the business didn’t catch my attention enough that I wanted to do it long term,” she says. “I love planning, getting something off the ground and then going on to the next thing.”

By the time she sold Three Dog Bakery three years later, Tuen-ner-man was brewing a new idea. Inspired by a coffee-table book about historical New Orleans bars, Obituary Cocktail, by local photographer Kerri McCaffety, Tuenner-man came up with the concept of hosting cocktail-based walking tours. “So many famous spirits and cocktails were invented here,” she says, “and there are stories tied to them.” She teamed up with Gray Line tours, hired Joe Gendusa, a tour guide with a reputation as a great storyteller, and started the business in 2002.Over the next year, 200 to 300 tourists a month paid $24 to sip cocktails and hear stories about classic drinks like the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Sazerac and visitthe city’s glorious watering holes: Napoleon House, the Monteleone’s Carousel Bar and Ar-naud’s French 75 Bar. The events were so successful that they sparked yet another idea: What if the tours became part of an annual gathering that celebrated spirits, cocktails and bartenders from around the world and that educated professionals and cocktail enthusiasts about industry trends and crafting recipes? With classic cocktails getting a dust-off in popular culture and the word mixologist entering the lexicon, Tuennerman felt the time was right to launch Tales of the Cocktail.

“I cold-called the top 10 mixologists in the country,” she says. She persuaded them all to come and also convinced a liquor company, Southern Comfort, to sponsor the conference for $20,000, enough to reserve space in the Hotel Monteleone and pay for airfare and rooms for her star mixologists.

That first year, about 200 attendees were given free entrance to the one-day event. “Everybody had a great time, and it was small, but they all said, ‘This is terrific! You need to do this again!’ ” says Tuennerman. “And I said, ‘OK, great. We will!’ ”

Each year the conference got bigger. But as it started to stretch beyond the ballrooms and Carousel Bar of the Monteleone, Tuennerman’s decade-plus first marriage began to slip. “In June 2004, my husband told me he was done,” she says. “Despite the fact that I had been the breadwinner for some of that time, I was scared.” She responded by taking action: She bought her first house on her own—a little fixer-upper in the Lakeview neighborhood—and got to work making it a home.

Then Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans on August 29, 2005, nine days after the conclusion of the fifth Tales conference. Tuennerman’s house survived, but flooding left it uninhabitable. Through her mixologist contacts, she landed a three-month marketing gig in New York City, working for a coffee company. She rented an apartment there and tried to rebuild her life. “I’d go to the bank or the cell phone store and wouldn’t be able to do this or that because I’d lost all my documentation,” she says. “I’d wind up having a meltdown in public.” She had her New Orleans house gutted and planned to rebuild when she returned. But her dream job—Tales—appeared to be over. The sponsor that had supported the conference since its inception pulled out. “I had a serious cry—not the little-tears-down-your-face kind but the what-are-you-going-to-do panicked kind,” says Tuennerman. “And then I thought, Well, we’re just going to make it happen.”

When she returned to New Orleans on January 1, 2006, the first thing she did was move the event up a month so it wouldn’t coincide with the anniversary of Katrina. She also changed the business model: Tales would now charge an entry fee. She found several sponsors, and she completed the paperwork to turn Tales into a nonprofit organization whose mission would include preserving New Orleans’s unique drinking and dining culture and hosting educational programs for bartenders.

In the midst of it all, friends introduced her to Paul Tuennerman. A blue-eyed bachelor from Florida who worked as an executive in the food industry, he was immediately smitten. “I was 45 and driving around in my Italian sports car,” Paul says. “I wasn’t looking! But I’m the luckiest SOB out there. Ann is the most tenacious person I know. She thinks she can will anything to happen. The woman is tireless. She works till 11 or 12 every night and is up at 5 am.” Within a few months of their first date, she asked him to lend her $15,000 for Tales, and he agreed. (They married in 2007.)

Tuennerman cashed in her 401(k) and dumped her entire savings—$80,000—into relaunching Tales. She also took out a $100,000 line of credit and borrowed $10,000 from friends. Despite the city’s devastation, 4,000 attendees showed up in 2006—500 more than pre-Katrina. In 2008 she introduced an apprentice program in which up-and-coming mixologists could work side by side with industry stars like Dale DeGroff, Gaz Regan, Audrey Saunders, Simon Ford and Jim Meehan. And she established a scholarship program: One $5,000 grant is funding the creation of an online database and smartphone app that will let bartenders quickly hunt down recipes. She also wrangled a declaration from the Louisiana legislature making the Sazerac the official cocktail of New Orleans.

Tales’ impact now reaches way beyond the city. It has become a professional society, and that was “way overdue,” says DeGroff. “Tales has given a community to this growing, worldwide profession. Pre-Prohibition, there were 1,500 spirits; today there are 6,000. You need so much more education now.”

Tales has also been financially rewarding for Tuennerman. In 2007 she made $35,000, and she was deep in debt. But by 2011 she had paid back everybody she borrowed money from, including her husband, and cleared the line of credit. She has three full-time employees and pulls in a salary of $85,000. “One thing about New Orleanians—don’t underestimate us,” Tuennerman says, laughing. “We’re gonna be OK. We’ll figure it out, dust ourselves off and come back. That’s how we heal.”

AMY ZAVATTO writes about food, wine and spirits. She’s the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bartending.

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First Published Thu, 2012-10-25 09:29

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