The City Magazine Since 1975

Raising the Bar

Raising the Bar
April 2020

The Cocktail Bandits engage the hospitality industry in spirited discussions about diversity

Toast of the town: The Cocktail Bandits regularly engage stylists and photographers to create fresh lifestyle content for their social media sites. (Top left) Taneka Reaves (on left) and Johnny Caldwell sport custom aprons from Nigeria. (Bottom right) A signature limoncello cocktail at a Redux Contemporary Art Center event.

Inside an aging barrel room tucked into the quaint French countryside, the conversation turned to a unique pairing: hip-hop music and the international spirits market. “The cognac distillers attributed much of their sales to the African American community,” says Johnny Caldwell, who had traveled to France with her business partner, Taneka Reaves, as social media correspondents for one of the world’s largest wine and spirits trade shows, Vinexpo, before embarking on a three-day tour of the country’s winemaking regions. “Cognac is a very homogenous town with few people of color,” continues Caldwell. And that, she explains, made it the perfect place for these African American entrepreneurs to visit.

As creators of the multifaceted Charleston-based social media concoction known as the Cocktail Bandits, Caldwell and Reaves have made it their business to jump-start discussions about diversity within the hospitality industry. “We represent something that people don’t often see—women of color, with nappy hair and curvy bodies, unapologetically enjoying the city,” says Reaves.

The Cocktail Bandits have distilled themselves into a spirited and sophisticated resource on all things beverage.

In 2013, the College of Charleston graduates launched a blog aimed at sharing a “feminine, urban perspective to the hospitality market,” dubbing themselves “the curly ladies who talk cocktails daily.” Since then, the Cocktail Bandits have distilled themselves into a spirited and sophisticated resource on all things beverage.

As professional speakers, these go-getters help companies tap into the nearly $4 trillion of purchasing power that research attributes to consumers of color. The partners also manage an income from paid social media posts to 30,000 Instagram followers, appearances at conferences and festivals, and their recipe book, Holy Spirits! Charleston Culture Through Cocktails (Evening Post Books, 2018). They host hip-hop happy hours, teach mixology classes, and shake up posh events with signature cocktails. Just five years into business, Caldwell and Reaves were named among Imbibe magazine’s top 75 people to watch.

Now, these changemakers are leveraging their industry cred to talk about inclusion within the F&B arena. “We can sip and talk about issues together,” says Caldwell. Over the past several months, the Bandits have jetted to conferences and speaking engagements in Vegas, San Antonio, Jacksonville, and New Orleans. In addition, Caldwell and Reaves speak at high schools and colleges aross the state, hoping to inspire multicultural students to consider careers in the hospitality industry. “We all win when everyone has a seat at the table.”