A decade ago, bartender Josh Harris had a crazy idea for a blow-out party in New Orleans: he wanted to mix up big batches of punch in brand-new 40-gallon trash bins and serve them to his friends alongside whole roasted pigs.
Not only did Harris go through with his plan, but the event has become an institution and integral part of the annual drinks convention Tales of the Cocktail (ToTC). This Sunday will mark the 10th edition of his so-called Pig & Punch party. (Half Full is Pig & Punch’s media partner this year.)
However, the parties are more than just bacchanals—they’re also a means to give back to New Orleans. The first one was held, after all, only a few years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the Gulf of Mexico was polluted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
To that end, Harris and his business partner Morgan Schick, who run Bon Vivants Hospitality and own two top San Francisco bars, work with KIPP, a national nonprofit network of more than 220 college prep schools in underserved communities.
“We made t-shirts and made everything else at the event free, but we’d donate the money from the t-shirt [sales] to KIPP, and if you don’t buy a t-shirt you’re an asshole,” says Harris. “That first year we raised $1,600 and we were really excited about it.”
They also created a day of service helping schools in the KIPP program. Volunteers have done everything from paint classrooms and assemble furniture to pick up trash and debris left from Katrina on playing fields.
What Harris didn’t anticipate was how well the Bon Vivants’ now-signature event would resonate with bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts. “The event was not a sanctioned event when we first started and afterwards we learned that was a thing,” says Harris. “I think it felt a little more rebellious at the time than we realized.”
After that, Pig & Punch became the official closing party for ToTC. Though its rebellious air may have disappeared, with a spot on the conference’s official schedule, the event has become an institution—rain (as it often does) or shine.
“The goal for us was to keep it simple—we’re going to cook pigs, we’re going to put punch in trash cans and we’re going to have some music and the rest was up to the people,” says Harris. “It wasn’t an overproduced experience and I think it was a welcome way to end what was probably a long week of hitting it hard. That’s been the guide that we’ve tried not to deviate from over the years.”
However, the Bon Vivants have continued to build upon the concept of Pig & Punch, partnering over the years with like-minded chefs, bars, brands and organizations to help it do so. In its third year, Pig & Punch took its party outside of New Orleans, hosting events during the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in New York and Portland Cocktail Week in Portland, Oregon. They began branching out to non-cocktail industry festivals as well, hosting Pig & Punch parties at Art Basel in Miami and at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, in 2015. Around that same time, Bon Vivants Hospitality threw its first ever hometown fundraiser.
“It’s a funny thing that we hadn’t done San Francisco yet, but we were nervous that the event wouldn’t be successful without having a significant amount of industry people in town for a festival,” says Harris. But that gamble paid off—literally: “It became the highest fundraising from a single event that we’ve done to date,” he says.
Since its founding, the Bon Vivants has raised around $515,000 for KIPP and the other charitable organizations it works with—and $425,000 of that has come exclusively from merchandise sold at Pig & Punch events across the country. Additionally, the volunteers have donated an impressive 9,881 hours of labor. This year, Harris and Schick are committed to bringing the monetary donation from Pig & Punch up to $500,000, counting on both its generous partners and party goers to raise the remaining $75,000, and to reach a milestone 10,000 hours of combined volunteer labor.
“I’m issuing a call to action for this year that people need to come and give whatever they can,” says Harris, noting that more than 100 people have already committed to participating at tomorrow’s volunteer day. “We really appreciate all the support but we know that it’s different today than it was when we started it. All I could ask for is that we have a rockin’ year.”
As was the case last year, the 10th anniversary Pig & Punch party will take place at Crescent City Park, adjacent to the French Market. The Bon Vivants has also renewed its partnerships with bar and venue d.b.a. New Orleans to put together a noteworthy musical lineup, including local favorites TCB Brass Band and Little Freddie King, as well as with Scottish spirits company Edrington, which once again has committed to matching the total amount of funds raised during the event.
“We have a serious shot at raising that amount of money this year because of Edrington,” says Harris. “That generosity is unparalleled.”
The money raised this year will be divvied between KIPP, the ToTC Foundation grant program, and the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic. There will be 10th anniversary t-shirts and tank tops available for purchase, as well as pig head mugs. This will be the first time guests can purchase tickets prior to the event to exchange for a shirt. While it’s not necessary to do so, it does leave more time for eating, drinking and relaxing, and less time standing in line.
Pig & Punch’s philanthropic legacy extends to Harris’ and Schick’s bars Trick Dog and Bon Voyage. The remainder of the aforementioned $515,000 in donations has been raised through other projects that the Bon Vivants have organized over the years—including the sale of Trick Dog’s award-winning menus.
The bar partners with businesses and nonprofits like Pantone and local tattoo parlor Idle Hand to create innovative and eye-catching cocktail menus every six months that include 12 different drinks. The menus are offered for sale, and all the proceeds are donated to various organizations.
Over the past few years these menu partnerships have only served to further what Harris originally sought to do with Pig & Punch—particularly the 2017 menu What Rhymes with Trick Dog, which Harris describes as “a Little Golden or Dr. Seuss hybrid book.” To create the menu, the Bon Vivants partnered with McSweeney’s, the publishing house founded by author Dave Eggers. (Eggers runs his own nonprofit, 826 Valencia, which provides support to under-resourced students to help develop their writing skills.) The proceeds from What Rhymes with Trick Dog were donated to McSweeney’s writing initiatives and SOMArts.
The Bon Vivants recently partnered with another Eggers’ charity, ScholarMatch, to create The Bon Vivants Scholarship for graduating high school seniors. Bon Vivants Hospitality has pledged $150,000 over the next five years to fund the college education of five students, who must be a first-generation college student and have at least one parent in the hospitality industry. (Read about the scholarship’s first recipient, Gissela Guevara, here).
“A scholarship is something I wanted to do for a long time,” says Harris, adding that children’s literacy is a cause close to the organization, thanks in large part to its partnership with KIPP.
The announcement came just a couple of months before the release of Trick Dog’s latest themed menu benefitting the scholarship fund, Whole Dog, an ode to Stewart Brand’s The Last Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture magazine published in 1972.
This menu, like those before it, is a departure from any typical cocktail list. It incorporates its founders’ signature off-beat humor (as well as writing from those at 826 Valencia), innovative drinks, and philanthropy. There’s a full page about ScholarMatch, The Bon Vivants Scholarship, and celebrating Guevara and her plans for the future.
With that, Whole Dog makes it clearer than ever that the first Pig & Punch party set the tone for all of the Bon Vivants’ future endeavors—and Harris’ drive and excitement to expand the hospitality firm’s reach only deepens each year.
“I can’t think of many things in my life that I’ve been this involved with for this period of time,” says Harris. “It’s really become an important part of how The Bon Vivants derive value from the career choices we’ve made. It’s entwined with our industry, but is outside of what we do day-to-day, sitting in an office and running bars. It’s an important part of us.”