Episode 4: Interview with Lindsey Johnson from Lush Life Productions
Welcome to another episode of Movers & Shakers. In this episode April sits down Lindsey Johnson from Lush Life Productions to talk about community building, education (both behind and outside of the bar), participation, the punk scene, and what it takes to run a nationwide remote business that’s completely transforming the bar scene one city at a time. Here’s the episode link, with the full transcript down below:
Episode 4: Links and Resources
Barmetrix (Shawn Finter)
Bar Proprietors LLC. (David Kaplan)
Episode 4: Interview with Lush Life Founder, Lindsey Johnson
Announcer: Movers & Shakers, the podcast about people and ideas that are changing the beverage landscape. Now here's our host, April Wachtel. What's up Movers & Shakers, it's your host, April Wachtel.
April Wachtel: My guest today is Lindsey Johnson. She is the founder of Lush Life Productions and she is best known for conceiving and producing Portland Cocktail Week, Camp Runamok, and now Bar Institute. Today we talk about our passion for community building, her past in the punk scene, and how she keeps organized, energized and inspired. Lindsey Johnson, founder of Lush Life Productions, I am so psyched to have you in the studio with us today. How are you?
Lindsey Johnson: I'm well. I'm a little tired but I'm doing very well. We're on this big tour so—we're on 19 out of 25 cities, and it's super exciting because we get to see all of these cities. We get to see how they work, and we get to meet all these really great people. But you know, driving a van overnight from midnight to 4am everyday is certainly an undertaking.
April Wachtel: So are you the driver?
Lindsey Johnson:Sometimes, sometimes. Not designated. It depends. We actually have this very intricate work schedule so last night I was on the bar, I was a bartender last night. So when you're the bartender, or you're working in the bar, you're not the driver. The driver we send home to rest during the bar shift.
April Wachtel: Now is home "the van?"
Lindsey Johnson: Yeah. Sure is!
Ok well that's, I mean... I saw one of your live videos from the van—it looks cushy. So that's a good start.
Lindsey Johnson: It's not a bad van and we actually picked it because it's the most eco-friendly of all of those big sprinter vans.
April Wachtel: Oh cool.
Lindsey Johnson: Turns out the new version of the Ford Econoline, which is the "Transit"is the new eco-friendly version. So we actually get really great gas mileage on this thing.
April Wachtel: So that's the "eco" piece of the transport?
Lindsey Johnson: Yes. So each leg of the tour we go through and we have a social justice issue that we focus on, and we carry those through because all of these issues are intersectional, right?Like you can't talk about climate change without talking about poverty, and gender, and race, etc. etc. So when we were making decisions you'll notice there's no straw in my cocktail. We don't do straws unless they're paper eco-friendly, compostable and in a compostable location. So we try to consider that on each leg of the tour as we go through. The first leg was "climate change" the second leg we talked a lot about mental health and wellness. The third leg we talked about racial equality, and how that's not really a thing. How we've got a lot more work to do. We just finished up a leg on sexual assault prevention and we're currently on the last leg of the tour which is about labor issues and our business, particularly when we're talking about bartenders, there are some real serious labor issues that exist. Everything from hiring practices and discriminatory all the way through to fair wages, which as we all know, bartenders do not make a very fair wages a lot of the time.
April Wachtel: Alright. So let's back up a second, because I think we could go down a million rabbit holes here. So you're most well known probably for Portland Cocktail Week, Camp Runamok, you know now King Camp, Juniper Harvest, and Bar Institute evolved as a result of or out of Portland Cocktail Week. So how did you get your start in the industry in the first place?
Lindsey Johnson: That is such a great question. So I started as—I was working in an ad agency. Not in the industry at all, but my roommate—one of my very good friends—was a bartender, and he was working for a number of different folks here in the city. This was in 2005-2006. He was working in a number of bars here in town, and just would drive me out to events, and I'd go and meet all of these really wonderful intelligent people who all really had something to say, and not a whole lot of platform to say it on. It evolved from this place where I was making content around it in my free time. I had this ad agency on one side and I was also working for Hearst Media creating videos for them. You know, New York hustle. You gotta have a few jobs. So I was doing those two things simultaneously and I actually went out and shot a video at Belmont with Delta Girl many many years ago. This was, I wanna say 2006. And from that, the doors just sort of opened up. There was a real need for content to be made about bartenders. A lot of brands needed help and a lot of media outlets needed help so we started building that sort of content. I'd go in and I'd make these videos and they'd have such a different point of view than the brands wereused to seeing, and they were really just, "Where is this coming from? Where is the bartender advocacy thing coming from?" And I said, "Well, they're my friends. They're people I know and they're people that I believe need more space in our industry." So brands started bringing me on to help out with that sort of thing, and guide that direction. In doing that I had to go to a lot of events all over the country. I would go to these events and there would be so much drinking, and not very much productivity. You've got all these smart people in a room, but if they're not gonna talk and if they're not gonna connect, then what's the point? So, we started Portland Cocktail Week as an answer to that. As a way for us to get together in a room and talk about the business of the bar. So not talk about tasting which is super important—you have to know the products that you're selling—but you can get that at your bar. People will come in and train your staff on that sort of stuff whenever you want. You just have to put the request in. So we started talking about the things that you can't talk about—not that you can't talk about, but the things that don't get addressed as often when the content isn't fully curated that way. So we start talking just about the business of the bar and when I say the business of the bar I mean things that are as dorky as writing lease agreements and making sure you know how to cover yourself, right? We had David Kaplan yesterday talking about his first bar deal, and not just specifically his first bar deal, but how he would structure a bar deal now if it was his first time out. I can't tell you how helpful this conversation is, because he gives everybody the context that maybe the 10%sweat equity deal is not great for me. Maybe that will only net me $3,000 for all that work. So, that conversation is really important to have and something that we don't talk about when we're just hanging out and having a drink because, why would you, right? It's money, it's uncomfortable. So we structure all of our classes to be about that sort of thing. We also have classes about Plumbing 101. It's a class that we've absolutely offered before, because if you're a bar owner you gotta know how to do some basic plumbing work. So a lot of the content and a lot of the structure was built around that. That was sort of the beginning of Portland Cocktail Week and why it started to exist.
April Wachtel: What year was the first year that Portland Cocktail Week went live?
Lindsey Johnson: I think it was 2012. It's so funny, the last 10 years at this company have been a little bit of a blur. We've done so much in so little time. By the fourth year in, we changed the program entirely. We pulled alcohol fully out of the classroom. We refused to serve any drinks in class, which really changed the kind of content that you can present. We wanted this content that I was just talking about, but I didn't know how to solve the problem with sponsorship. You bring the sponsor into the equation, they want to serve their product—that's fair, they're paying for that time, of course they should have people sampling their product. And they wanted to talk about the merits of that product if it's a sponsored space, so what we did to solve the problem is just pull sponsors out of the equation. We put sponsors in places that I actually think are more productive for them and do more work for them. Instead of having a class that's 50 mins of whatever the topic—like Plumbing 101—and then 10 minutes about how great Brand A is, we've separated the two. Now we do 60 minutes of Plumbing 101 and then we have a 30 minute break in between each class, and there's all these little space that you can go in—little booths kind of like a trade show (it's a little different because we curate the content a little differently), but where you can go in and get a real immersion into what they're trying to and trying to say. It ends up working better for them, and it works out better for our guests because they can curate their experience based on what they want to do.
April Wachtel: For sure. And then it's not the dilution where you like "What does this have to do with this other thing?"
Lindsey Johnson: Exactly.
April Wachtel: So that was PCW, and then how long did that run for before it transitioned into Bar Institute?
Lindsey Johnson: Technically it was four years, and then we started calling it "Bar Institute" because we saw that things were changing and molding a little bit. It was still PCW up until a year ago. October will be two years. We started last year because we just had too many people show up to PCW two years ago.
April Wachtel: Will you explain because you're talking about this a little bit before the show—will you explain why that's a problem?
Lindsey Johnson: Sure! It doesn't sound like a problem, right?! There are a couple of things at play: One is in doing research and trying to figure out how classes should work and how people learn best I read a lot of book on adult education just trying to get my head around what works in that space. Some of the really simple answers are "Classes bigger than 40 don't work, especially with a group of people who are not used to going to class everyday." Smaller class size was really important to me. When you're capping a class at 40 people and 5,000 people show up, that means the sheer number of classes that we'd have to have is extraordinary. There's not a space big enough in Portland—there might not even be a space big enough in New York—to host that sort of event. That was sort of problem #1. Problem #2 was we were renting out the biggest—Portland is a really amazing city—but Portland is small. That's the charm of Portland is that it's small and boutique and everything is well curated, but it's not built for mass. So as a host city it just couldn't work. We're renting out the biggest spaces—the convention center—and still running out of room. It just wasn't working for us structurally, so we took a look at that problem and the choices were: either start charging way more money and create that barrier to entry, tell people "no" —say, "No, you can't come and learn."
April Wachtel: People do not like that.
Lindsey Johnson: I don't like that. It bums me out. And the third option was have more events in different places and make that education more accessible, which obviously speaks to me the most. So that's what we did, and last year we put together six Bar Institutes across the US. They were all so vastly different, but all really fantastic.
April Wachtel: What size were those?
Lindsey Johnson: The one in New York was a little over 1,200 people. The smallest one was Phoenix where we had about 450-500 people. They sort of ranged and you know going in, expectations for each one, we were trying to keep them—I had this rule where once we got to 1,000, we would add another city. We decided that is was better to have more bigger events and put them in cities where we could host big events, and split off into Canada and into Puerto Rico—two places where we had sooo many attendees. We had almost 100 different attendees come to Bar Institute events last year. We really wanted to make sure we were thanking them for showing up and now it looks like everyone is using it as an excuse to go down to San Juan for a couple of days. That was the thought process—I would rather have more events that go directly to people because it's expensive. If you're a bartender, taking off four days from work automatically is expensive. It's not like you have a salary that you're taking vacation days or you're taking personal days. This is saying, "I'm not gonna make any money for those four days." That's already expensive. Then to fly in, get a hotel—it's a lot for a bartender to take off that kind of time. As a curated bartender only, the only people who come to our events are bar professionals, it's hard to say, "Come do this, and also spend $200 for every hour of class you go to, or even $50 is too much." So we charge $25 to come to the event—that gets you into all the classes. It gets you into all of the event programming for the evening. It's quite a deal, we think. It's really more of a placeholder than anything else. Last year, almost all of that money went to charity, after we paid for the badges. We have some really great charitable partners we love working with. That money is not so much for us to keep and take, as much as it is for us to reinvest in the community and building that out. It's a placeholder so I know you're actually gonna come.
April Wachtel: I guess I'm wondering...sponsorship. Obviously you've got a tremendous amount of knowledge and perspective on this—the spirits and the beverage industry is a little bit weird. There are other industries that have the same dynamic, but pretty much educational programming exists because the brands are willing to sponsor that. As you started steering brands to understand where the benefit is of building the community rather than necessarily having their product on everybody's lips. How has that process been for you?
Lindsey Johnson: I think that the one word is: "Challenging."It's definitely a paradigm shift for most of them. Looking at the way things traditionally run. We're used to an educational class, and hour and a half long class, four cocktails being served in that, and that being the industry standard. Four cocktails in an hour and half is too many. Even if they're small.
April Wachtel: Agreed.
Lindsey Johnson: Three cocktails is too many. I think one is too many if it's 10 o'clock in the morning and we're talking about spreadsheets. In the afternoon and when we're having happy hour time—great. When we've learned all day and it's time to go and enjoy—great, absolutely. We should be social, we should enjoy these beautiful products that are made for us and for everybody. But I think putting that in the room distracts from—there's no way it's not distracting to have people walk through a room and put down a drink while you're trying to listen about lease agreements. It's just distracting. We just wanted to remove that from the equation. So far so good. That's worked. It works for our education, and it works for our guests. And that to me is the most important thing. We'll figure out the sponsorship. That's on me to figure out how to make it work from a financial point of view. Which is certainly very challenging. Some of the things that we've done include creating that exhibition floor. It was packed, especially in New York where people have got the idea of what they were supposed to do and understood the value of going in. We had partners like Jack Daniels offering professional headshots, resume review—so you could go into this space, and you just went to class and you know that "Oh shoot, I need a head shot." Great. Over in the Jack Daniels booth they have a photographer for the next three hours who will do that for you and send it to you for free. We've really worked with our partners to build out things that help support the community, and by the end of it, it's great for them because they just got people in to sample their product, to talk to them about the cool new things that they're doing with the product, to learn a little about what they're doing, and they provided a really great value for our guests and their guests. In working together and just pushing a little further past the standard operating procedure here, and thinking about creatively solving this problem, we've come up with solutions that are much better for everybody.
April Wachtel: This is such an interesting question because again, there are so many other industries where there's tremendous formalized educational resources and very much not the case for us. Again unless it's funded by brands. So that's really encouraging because as you said, the separation allows you to focus on both things with equal intensity, and I'm personally really enamored by that model. So I'm glad that it's working.
Lindsey Johnson: We're getting there. It takes some time. Last year was definitely challenging as far as finding partners who understood. This year it's less challenging. We've got a lot of really fantastic people who saw what happened last year, they saw the success. They saw that on the floor at any given time there were 200 people and by the way you can scan their badge and have their contact info. For the same price that you would pay to sponsor a dinner or sponsor a class at another festival, you come in and you have this space for three days, and you can tag this badge and you have people to follow up with. I know that as an agency partner, as someone who would go in and act at other festivals, I would be really frustrated that I wouldn't know who was physically in the room unless I went and wrote down each one of their names, which is very awkward. Having that infrastructure built in and going back and looking at what other industries do and how those formalized structures work—we've pulled a lot of inspiration from that. SXS, they scan your badge every time you walk into a room. They scan your RFID every time. They know who and they share it with their partners. We do the same thing because it ends up being good for everybody when we all can network and work together.
April Wachtel: Alright, I wanna talk about community a little bit. Before the show we were chatting, and what is your background with punk?
Lindsey Johnson: Oh God.
April Wachtel: And tell me about being 15.
Lindsey Johnson: 15, so long ago. A lot of what we're doing right now—this Bar Institute EconoTour—"Econo" comes from the Minute Men, who are this punk band from California, who talk about jamming Econo. That was their thing—we jam econo. We just stole that idea. You can make arguments either way that it's very punk or not punk at all. We took that idea—of jamming econo— and we applied it to how we present education. We engineered this tour where we're making 25 stops in 6 weeks. That's four or five events in a week depending on the week, and we stop, we host classes during the day, and then we have a pop up event at night that carries through the themes of our classes during the day. All of this structure is built off of a lot of ideas that come from when I was 15. I was part of a lot of those little scenes—they were really important to me as a kid—having space to go in and build something, no matter what it is. To build something that belongs to you. That's a lot of what we do when we're talking to volunteers. We talk to them about building something for themselves. So, you guys can go out and build this pop up that we just did and raise all this money for charity, which by the way, New York raised the most money—over $3,000 last night.
April Wachtel: Oh goodie!
Lindsey Johnson: Way to go New York. You can go in as a community, as the seven of you, and build this thing that can do some real good and make some real change. During the day we go in and we teach classes, and we have incredible presenters like, truly incredible presenters. Yesterday we had you in. You did wonderfully.
April Wachtel: Thank you.
Lindsey Johnson: We had Sean Finter from Barmetrix, we had David Kaplan from Proprietors LLC, just the list was incredible. We also tackle social justice issues. We had Ashton Berry coming in and teaching her Woke 101 class which has evolved in a couple of cities, and is just...if you haven't seen it, go check out the Facebook Live video right now. It's important to have that conversation. She's really doing a beautiful job. We have the time to have those classes during the day, and then at night the pop up and all the money goes to charity. But that feels so much like when I would put together shows in a DIY space as a 15-year old, because it's building something for our community, and giving us all a reason to get in a room together. You sent over some questions today asking me about what I read and what resources and tools I use. The most important resource and tool I have is my network, and the people who are around me. That network loses value when we're not physically together. So many of us are separated by space and time and all that good stuff. We have the internet, and we all talk on Facebook, and we all kind of see what everyone is doing, but you don't get the full story, you just get that top line. When you're physically in a space with someone, and physically in a room with them, you can connect in real way and hear what their doing, and they can give you feedback on what you're doing. There can be a back and forth that often sparks new ideas, new business opportunities, and if nothing else it's just someone to talk to and listen to who gets what you're going through because we're in a niche of a niche of a niche of a business. Not very many people understand all of the intricacies that go into the work that we all do. I'm confident you understand much better what I'm trying to accomplish, and how I'm trying to accomplish it than somebody just off the street. Even a friend or a family member who just isn't part of the business because it is so specific.
April Wachtel: So here's a sidebar question: Obviously with globalization, business people generally would prefer to conduct all business through Skype or Google Hangouts, whatever that is. Consistently what you see is that for any important business conversation, people are physically traveling to spend time with each other. So my question is, do you think at any point that need for physical presence is gonna change?
Lindsey Johnson: I hope not. I truly hope not. I think there is something lost. Doesn't matter how great the connection speeds are or how clear the video connection is—you lose something from not being in the same space and sharing that energy with people. It's part of why when you offered for me to be on the phone today, I said, "No, I'm coming in!"
April Wachtel: Which I really appreciate by the way.
Lindsey Johnson: I think it's important because I can see you and we're sharing energy and space together and not to sound too new agey, that's important. You're a super positive person and you're doing really incredible things. It helps me to be around somebody like you. It's inspiring, it's interesting, and it helps color my experience. The next time I'm gonna be out in the world—I have meetings all the rest of today, and I have you top of mind. I'm certain you're gonna come up in conversation. It's very difficult to forge real connections on the internet.
April Wachtel: So what did you do with the punk scene when you were—did you start a small version of this, but for punks? I'm so curious because it's so rare to find someone who's main mission is community building, or who really derives energy from that.
Lindsey Johnson: My background is more as a participator—I certainly made zines. You come to our events and you'll see zines. We still do that. I certainly participated. I was there at the shows. I was a bartender at a venue for many years. I was a door person at a venue for many years.
April Wachtel: You're too nice to be a door person at a venue.
Lindsey Johnson: Oh you don't know girl!
April Wachtel: I was a bouncer behind Fenway Park at one point.
Lindsey Johnson: Yes! Of course you were
April Wachtel: I was nice, but nobody else was nice.
Lindsey Johnson: You gotta be tough. All those jobs, and that's part of being part of a community and part of a scene is that you take on the job that's required of you. Right now, it's the same story. Yesterday I spent the whole day running around the city picking up edible glitter for the cupcakes, making sure we had tables and chairs and all those little things that we needed to make sure that we got to the venue. We realized that we hadtoo many butts, not enough seats. So I went and rented more seats in the middle of the day. Brought em in, we were good to go. I like doing the helper work, and I'm used to it, because in a scene it doesn't matter if you're in charge or you've booked the show or if you're the barback that night—chances are you're both gonna be cleaning the bathroom. I am the person who cleaned the bathroom at Camp Runamok for a couple of years.
April Wachtel: Oh God. Every one?
Lindsey Johnson: Oh yeah. Now I don't. It's important that you're willing to go and do that work, at least it is to me. I'm really hands on and I like to be really involved in all that. That comes from being a part of the scene and knowing that if you're building something, you've gotta be ready. It's like entrepreneurship right? You've gotta be ready to do every job because somebody's gotta do it. If you don't do it, chances are it's not getting done. I'm really lucky now that I have a really awesome team. There are 10 of us so we get a lot more done because it's not just me doing it. I still know that there are days that I'm gonna have to clean the bathroom, clean the van. I'm the one cleaning the van everyday because I'm the neat freak of the group. It's important that you're able to take all that on. I learned that when I was much younger. It also structurally gave me the tools to know how to put a tour together, how to book a tour. Knowing what venues we should go to for this event. Knowing where we should be, how we should work. I actually present a class during Econo about hosting charitable events. One of the things I always talk about is how important it is—when you're picking a venue, pick a partner, don't pick a vendor. I think that's true for everything we do. Every aspect of what we do, we look for partners and not vendors. People who are excited about our mission, who are excited about what we do. Because they're gonna work harder and they're gonna come up with better ideas because they understand it and they're excited about it.
April Wachtel: Amazing. Alright, so now you have this spread of events, and I'm wondering if you're interested in covering every major spirits category or are you saying, "We want to be the go-to heart behind the cocktail community." What's your long-term vision, because I know that you have one.
Lindsey Johnson: There are so many competing visions right now because there's so much work that needs to be done. To be completely honest with you, I see 10 converging paths. More. I want so badly to be able to do all the work that needs to be done to help support the infrastructure and help grow our business. It's about priorities. Right now our top priority is delivering this business education more than anything else. We actually, believe it or not, do a lot of that work at Camp Runamok too, which is more about networking and teaching people culture. I think eventually we will branch out the camp projects. We have our eyes on a few regions, but there are certainly some that are problematic for me ethically. I look at spirits production, we have to pick and choose things that we believe in. That's really important to me. I feel like cognac's a great fit because all of the products are made beautifully and historically and they have a real tie to the land, and they do things that are eco-friendly. That makes sense to me. That's a region where I know I can be successful, but I know that there are also structural challenges to doing a camp. Let's say that we wanted to do scotch camp, right? How on earth would we move 50 people around all the regions of Scotland in a week—it's not possible. So, logistically that presents challenges. Is it impossible—definitely not. Is it something we want to do? Definitely. Is it something we can do today? Probably not today. I think that's many years of work and sort of solving that problem. One of the things I enjoy doing the most and one of the things we have the most fun with is creating these itineraries for our guests. When other people look at these itineraries they think we're insane. They think it's not possible to do all the things we plan to do over the course of a week. I can tell you when we put the King Camp itinerary together there were just wide eyes. There was just no way—we're gonna be late to everything. And we weren't late once because we have an awesome transportation crew and we get the kids on the bus.
April Wachtel: Do you ever wish that there was less to do?
Lindsey Johnson: No. I'm one of those people who believes that the world is a very large place and there's so much that needs to be done and so much to see and do and experience that I want to go do all of it all the time. I'm lucky—I have a lot of energy.
April Wachtel: I couldn't tell *laugh*
Lindsey Johnson: I'm just so excited about the possibilities that are out there that I wanna go experience as much as possible. I do impose these crazy schedules on people. At Camp Runamok, everybody's up every morning at 8am. You're awake at 8am, whether you went to bed at 5am, 6am or not you're required to go to breakfast which happens at 8:30am.
April Wachtel: Yowza!
Lindsey Johnson: Oh yeah. Because you're on that bus to go to the distillery no later than 10am so we need everybody up and ready to go and dressed for success. Everyday starts really early and that I think is really important because you don't wanna go all the way to Kentucky and not see all of these incredible distilleries. American history is there in those distilleries. Why wouldn't you want to go see them all? And we're so lucky to have partners who put together these programs. I can't tell you, April. These programs they put together are out of control. Everybody wants to go to a Rickhouse with a whiskey thief and pull out whatever Jimmy Russell is making lately. Every person on the planet wants to do it whether they know it or not. To get to go do that is incredible. If I didn't make them wake up so early they couldn't do it. So we pack those schedules really really tight, but it does take many many months of planning to make it really work and really work well.
April Wachtel: I went to Portland Cocktail Week one year, and at the time I was a sponsor working for a brand and I remember thinking that the quality of the experience from both perspectives was amazing because as a sponsor you're always fighting to make sure people actually attend when they say they're going to. In New York it's about a quarter of the people who actually RSVP "Yes" actually come. I remember thinking that it was a really incredible thing that everybody was "required to attend" but as such, there was no FOMO. There's no, there's a whole bunch of things going on simultaneously and I'm missing out on all those other things. It felt really relaxing and really beneficial.
It's about culture, right? We've created a culture where everything is required. If you're coming you're committing to being a part of the program, part of the event. You're not gonna go off to a bar in the middle of the day and just not be a part of it because then you do miss these really incredible experiences that have been very carefully put together for you. We go out of our way to ensure that none of the events suck. We have a rule that you can't come in and throw a cocktail party at one of our events. You just can't. As much as I love enjoying a cocktail from one of my beautiful friends, that's not an event that passes mustard with us. That's not enough for us to say "Yes, you can be on our schedule." It has to be a whole lot more than that. Because of that, people trust us. People know that if they come to our events and they stay on the program, they're gonna get to see things that they'd never get to see before, they're gonna experience things that they wouldn't normally get to experience, and they get to do it with all of these great people who have also opted in. Something that I say at Econo—usually I take that really early teaching spot—I tell everybody to look around. Look at the people who are physically in this room right now. These are your people, whether you know them or not, make sure you know them before you leave, because these are the people who care enough to show up and be a part of the program. From that we've already seen like a month later really cool things come out of it. Like composting programs and educational programs for the community like really cool stuff.
April Wachtel: Have you ever taken the Landmark Seminar?
April Wachtel: It's not for everybody, but I derived a tremendous amount of value from it. I took it recently, and one of the things they make absolutely mandatory is showing up when you say you're going to. They basically said this is opting in, and you are what your word says you are. If you don't do that, that means you are not yourself. It's really interesting, the energy that creates and the dynamic that creates because if you don't show—again, it's no problem—you have elected not to participate. You can't half-ass participate. I'm super down with that.
Lindsey Johnson: I think that's so important. At Camp Runamok we have a strict required "you must go to everything or you must have a good excuse" policy. That is everything from wearing the dumb onesie that your counselor has assigned you to showing up to breakfast everyday. Some of them are health and safety issues. We need everybody eating—it's a long day and you have to put food in your body. The food is awesome because Claire Gordon who's this amazing chef from Seattle comes in and makes all the food and it's ridiculous. The best food you've ever had. We have those health and safety requirements on the one side, but then the other part of it—the only complaint I get consistently about Camp Runamok is that people who come go, "I looked around and I decided I was too cool for school and I had not as good a time as the people over there who put their whole selves into the program." That's the only regret that I get from people. Consistently I get it from four or five people every session who say, "I just wish I hadn't felt like I was too cool to do this. Because I saw how great it was for them. It was still cool, I still got to learn a lot about whiskey, I still got to learn a lot about all these people, but I missed probablythe most important part of the program." Which is putting yourself fully into something.
April Wachtel: That's a life lesson and that sticks with you. When I was in college I studied abroad in a couple different places—London being one of them—and I really felt like I missed out. It wasn't a too cool for school thing, but it wasn't engaging to the maximum that I could. I have always regretted that. So again, even if that's what they got from it, that's good.
Lindsey Johnson: That's something that I learned when I was younger when I was part of all those punk scenes. I'm a very shy person. Crippling shy person. I'm not one to start a conversation. I'm not one to engage in that way, but I learned really young that the people who were getting the most out of life and getting the most out of the experiences around them were the ones who were participating and the ones who were stepping up and saying, "I'll do the work." So that's really where a lot of this comes from. I saw that. I said, "I don't want to just be a participant. I wanna get the most out of this experience. The most out of this short time we have. To go and do something." That's the lesson I try to impart as much as I can at camp and certainly we're building that in. To be honest, that was the thing that was missing for me at PCW and Bar Institute that first year. I think with Econo and Bar Institute that we're building out this year, it's there. It's so important for me to have that culture because that culture is essentially who I am as a person. It's who we are as a company, and that thing is what is missing the most in our industry.
April Wachtel: I think that there's tremendous opportunity for that to happen as well because innately the people who end up in this industry—who are really engaged—are people who like something about being around other people and are engaging because it's food and beverage. It's something that's very tactile and tangible, so I think that there's a great likelihood that you can roll that into the fiber of the community.
Lindsey Johnson: Absolutely. People want to participate. They do. Whether they're pretending they don't—they do. People want to be a part of something. Because of the way things are changing and things around us right now, we have a greater opportunity than we ever have before to actually get people involved and for them to opt in. Before it was a little easy to be complacent. Things weren't so bad. Things were actually moving in a pretty good direction. It was like, "Alright, this is cool." But now things aren't, and we have the opportunity to stand up for ourselves and stand up for people around us in our communities because by the way, if you're at a bar you are the centerpoint for a lot of communities. You're the mouthpiece for a lot of things that happen in your community. You're the trendsetter in a lot of ways. If you're out there and doing this work it makes a big difference, not just for the bar community but for your greater community, your city, and nationally too. Get em out there. Get em working.
April Wachtel: Is there any media that you ingest that you recommend for other people? Because I think that your story is just really remarkable and I think a lot of people will be both engaged listening to this but also really wanna know how you make yourself successful.
Lindsey Johnson: Oh my goodness. I come from such a non-traditional path. I don't read a lot of business or self-help books. I don't listen to a lot of those sorts of podcasts. That's not the kind of media that I normally engage in. I'm an active news reader—I was actually a journalist for many years. So I ingest a lot of news media.
April Wachtel: What kind of journalist?
Lindsey Johnson: I was a broadcast journalist. TV producer.
April Wachtel: Ohhhhh.
Lindsey Johnson: Yeah, I did that for a while. It's why we have so many video cameras around and we know how to use them. I come from that world so I'm used to ingesting and reading a lot. I'm a big believer in, as you've probably noticed, too much. I read everything that comes my way. Whenever I'm working with a new partner or whatever, I'm like, "Send me everything you have. I wanna read it all." I do a lot of that. Everyday I read the NY Times and the Washington Post. Those are the two that I kind of stick by, that I read everyday.
April Wachtel: Why the Washington Post? I think the Times is a default for people, but why the Post?
Lindsey Johnson: It has improved so vastly over the last five years. It's become a really great resource for food and beverage reporting. There was an article about a year ago about women in our industry, specifically female bartenders and the challenges they face, and that really turned my thinking about that publication on it's head. I always thought of it as conservative and not inline with my beliefs or things that I would want to read. Turns out, it's actually a little bit closer than I thought. It's continuing to move in that direction. I think two quotes from that article appear in our current zine on labor issues. I don't really do anything else consistently. I get a lot of media sent my way, and I try to read everything that comes, but I definitely read a lot more books than I do magazines or digital publication. I'm a big fiction reader. I try to read a book a week. Right now on tour I'm not as good. It's more like one every two weeks, but getting there. I try to keep up while we're on the road. I read a lot of fiction and not a whole lot of business books, but I say that with a caveat. Right now, I am reading a book that Shawn Finter from Barmetrix recommended to me which is called Double Double. I am reading that one right now and it's really helping us. We're in the process of rearticulating the branding and language we use around Lush Life, and it's helping me find a way to talk about it a little bit better. We're also working with this really great agency out of Portland who's helping us. They're doing a great job of sort of shaping that conversation for us. I know we need to be better about the traditional business aspects. That's the deficiency in Lush Life. That's not a passion of mine. My passion is in building community and education and making sure people have resources. I often neglect the business side.
April Wachtel: Oh girl, I hear you.
Lindsey Johnson: That part is the hard part. So I'm working on getting better at that, and I'm so lucky to be—it goes back to that network thing, right? I show up everyday and Sean Finter is at work for me, so I can bounce ideas off him, and he's just the smartest guy in the room so it helps to have people like that to bounce things off of. If you show up to an event like Bar Institute, that person is there to talk to, which is really nice.
April Wachtel: What about organizational tools?
Lindsey Johnson: We have a lot of those, because we all work remotely.
April Wachtel: How about picking your top 3?
Lindsey Johnson: Sure. I use Evernote for me personally.
April Wachtel: Oh my God, I love Evernote.
Lindsey Johnson: Right??
April Wachtel: Chris Lowder and I nerded out about that when he was on.
Lindsey Johnson: He is perfect. We use Google as our baseline. Google Drive. We use Google for everything. Google Calendar. Gmail. Google all day everyday. It all integrates, it all does what it needs to. It also connects back to my Expensify account which is...everything has to go in there right away or I will lose every receipt. I'm on the road 300+ days a year. If I'm not taking a picture of that receipt in the moment, it's bad news. I use Google Suite which is also a very useful place—all of our documents live in nested folders. If I want to know who attended Camp Runamok, or who applied to Camp Runamok in 2015, I can go back and see that list, see how many applicants there were.
April Wachtel: That's awesome.
Lindsey Johnson: Super helpful for us in that way. With Evernote, I keep all of my shopping lists and all of my load lists in Evernote and I can compare them year to year and change them year to year. It's really helpful when we're starting the planning on who's going to go buy these thing, where are they going to come from? I can say, "Ok. Last year we bought these 60 things. That came from Amazon. That came from..." It makes it so much easier for all of us. Expensify of course is all my expenses. The thing that is most helpful that we figured out is, something like 60% of my expenses come through my inbox. Which is really great. I love that. So I take them and I put them in a folder, called "Expenses." Very creative. It forwards directly to Expensify so it's one less step for me. Then I can go back in and be like, "On this day I went to Growl House, my favorite coffee shop in Louisville, and this is what I was working on. This is who I was meeting with." So it makes it much much easier. We also use Slack because we are all remote. My team lives all over the country. We have people in Louisville and Birmingham, Portland, New York, actually all over the country. We need a mobile office. That's kind of what Slack works as when we're not together. When we are physically in a van together obviously it's very different. When we're spread out all over the country it's a way that we can communicate.
April Wachtel: Quick question about Slack: We tried using it at Swig + Swallow and at the time there was just three of us. Now there's more of us. Three of us, one person who was working another job a lot of the time. What we found out was that was really annoying for that one person. I figured that there's been so much positive review of Slack from all these tech companies around the world. Is that something that once you have a bigger team, it's easier to use or is there still a lot of noise?
Lindsey Johnson: There are a couple of ways to mitigate that. You can turn off notifications, which for me was life changing. I can't read everything that pops up. We have one channel that's just pictures of puppies. I go check that out everyday, and I love it, but it's not a thing that I need coming into my notifications. Turning off the notifications was helpful for the people who were busier, maybe running around a little bit more. When we first started it we had part of the team that was very against it. They didn't want to do it. They didn't want to buy in. They did not see value in it. But those people were pretty generally sitting in an office in New York together and their team is pretty insular. It's just didn't make sense for them. They were like, "Why do I care how many things you're buying on Amazon for Camp Runamok? Calm down. Not important." This is true of basically any one of these apps: They work really well when you spend some time building out the infrastructure and making sure there's not extra noise. So we went through and did a purge of the channels and deleted something like 40 channels that had been created because people can go in and create whatever channel they want. And that really helped with productivity and also with buy-in. Once it was a place where things were actually happening. It takes a lot of leadership from people who are passionate about that idea. I am not a person who is passionate about those sorts of things. It's not where my interests lie. But having people in there who can keep it clean who can keep it productive, keep things where they're supposed to go—it's very useful in that way. It's not perfect, but it's better than us not talking to each other, and having one progress report every week. One call a week is just not enough communication.
April Wachtel: One final question—Educational Resources: Obviously we talked about media. Is there anything where you are looking for inspiration and you're saying, "Yeah. Pictures of puppies. Walking down by the river." I all the sudden feel like I'm working more creatively, I'm more educated. Reaching outside the industry, what does that look like for you?
Lindsey Johnson: As far as educational resources go, I think we have a number of really great ones in the industry. I've talked about Sean Finter a couple of times. I think Barmetrix is an incredible resource. I really do rely heavily on my personal network. I know that that's maybe not an option for everyone, but it can be, is the thesis statement of all the things I've said. These networks exist when you show and you participate. Being able to call somebody, like David Kaplan and say, "Hey, somebody just offered me this deal. What do you think?" is life-changing. To have those networks really is the big game-changer because we don't have formalized resources, we don't have formalized education in this sector of the business. We just don't. We're working slowly and incrementally to change that, but there's just not that resource. Within the industry, and specifically trying to solve the problems that you face as a bartender or a bar owner—you gotta go to your network, because they're the only ones who know. If you don't know, you can always call or email me and I'll be like, "Oh you know who knows how to fix that problem? It's so-and-so." That's really the way I solve a lot of those problems and those bigger problems. As far as inspiration goes, that's a totally different game. We are constantly listening to and arguing about music in the van. I find a lot of inspiration there, obviously. I will make you a Spotify playlist. How bout that? And I'll send it to you.
April Wachtel: Oh my God, I would love that! Yay!
Lindsey Johnson: I'll put that together. That's a better way than me talking about it for another 20 minutes.
April Wachtel: Awesome. I accept! Lindsey, where can people find you on social media?
Lindsey Johnson: The best way to find what we're doing on the tour is Facebook.com/barinstitute. That's the easiest way to see where we are on the tour and what we're doing.
April Wachtel: And you have all the videos streaming live?
Lindsey Johnson: We are shooting as many of the classes streaming live as possible as of right now. Since New Orleans, we streamed all but one. Some of the repeat classes we don't do, but for the most part, any class that we've done is out there. You can find me personally @livethelushlife on basically any of the networks. I kept the name the same to make it easy. Please, reach out. If there's somebody who is excited about getting involved or you want to do something, this is about people and connecting people and if you wanna opt in, we want you. So never, ever hesitate to reach out to me on Facebook or Instagram or email me email@example.com. I'm always available. I want people who want to opt in.
April Wachtel: And I can vouch for Lindsey by the way. She's insanely responsive. Like, insanely. Thank you so much. This was amazing having you. I can't wait to see what happens with the rest of the tour.