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.”

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