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FIRST PERSON: Community helping to heal New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina

December 26, 2019:

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is marking its centenary in 2019 and as part of the commemoration has launched a photography project called “Dignity at Work: The American Experience” to document the working life of people across the United States. UN News joined the ILO on a visit to the southern US state of Louisiana.

Beth Ribblett is the owner of Swirl Wine Bar and Market in the New Orleans’ neighbourhood of Faubourg St. John. At college she studied costume design, and subsequently exercise physiology, but then decided she wanted to open a wine bar. Her business is now almost 14 years old and is focused on serving the local community. 

“Swirl Wine Bar and Market is really a post-Hurricane Katrina story. I was interested in wine for a long time and it was in my 5-year plan to open a wine-focused business, but when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the long-term became more immediate.

I realized it was important to focus on the things that you love, so three months after Katrina struck, I decided to sign a lease and invest in the city and help bring New Orleans back to life. At that time, we didn’t know what was going to happen, whether the city was going to recover.

Swirl became a place for people to get together to tell their stories of rebuilding, to talk about what was happening in the city, it was a community meeting place.

The service industry and this business in particular is about relationships. Some 90 per cent of our customers are regulars, so it’s important that we build a good relationship, that we provide a great service and that they trust us.

We are about community; one time, I had to help a passenger who had drunk too much into a cab.

My work means making sure my customers are enjoying themselves and I also get great satisfaction from educating people about the wine we are serving. I want them to know where it’s from and the story behind the wine. This is one of the most important things we do. I always want to be learning and educating customers helps me to do this.

ILO Photo/John Isaac
The owner of Swirl Wine Bar and Market, Beth Ribblett, samples a glass of wine.

The catering industry is male dominated, from chef to sommelier, so it can be tough for women. My dad raised really strong girls, giving us confidence, so I never thought that as a woman I could not achieve my goals. And as a gay woman, I have never expected any help from men and that’s the way I have lived my life.

When my partner and I tried to get the neighbourhood association to agree to our license application, they fought us. If we had been a male-female couple, or if it was just a man applying, then I believe it would have been different, but we didn’t let this stop us.

Right now, I feel as though the way women are treated in the industry has gone backwards, probably as a result of the current political atmosphere. I am sad to hear stories of men taking advantage of young women and I hate that this is still part of our business.

I am upset that women feel they have to put up with this behavior or somehow ignore it in order to make progress. My advice to young women is to be knowledgeable, trust that knowledge, and themselves, if challenged. It requires a certain amount of fearlessness.

Technology does not have a huge influence on our business as so much is about relationships, our conversations with customers. This type of service industry can’t be automated, you can’t have a conversation with a machine.”

COURTESY: UN NEWS| DAILY WRAP

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