This Arizona woman is changing the industry. And she has the cocktail award to prove it

·4 min read

Amanda Gunderson is the first person from Arizona to win the prestigious Pioneer Award at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, which are one of the most globally recognized accolades for beverage industry professionals and widely considered the Oscars of the cocktail world.

The award was named after Ruth Fertel, the owner of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, who bought Chris Steakhouse restaurant as a single mother of two with no experience in 1965. But more than simply being a great entrepreneur, she was also a force for societal and industry change she hired single mothers and after Hurricane Betsey hit New Orleans, she served free food to the community.

Since 2012the Pioneer Award "recognizes an individual who has encouraged mentorship and contributed to making the hospitality industry equitable and inclusive by working to remove barriers as it pertains to gender identity, race, religion, and socioeconomic status."

This year, Gunderson joined the 10 other women who have transformed the industry while giving back to their communities, from Joy Spence, Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum's first female master blender to Carmen Alicia Villarreal Treviño, the first female tequila distillery owner, the director of Casa San Matías and a champion of women's rights.

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How Gunderson earned global recognition for industry advocacy

The co-founder of Another Round Another Rally, Gunderson fits the bill as a game changer with her non-profit, which focuses on providing emergency funding and education to hospitality workers.

"It makes me so proud to have won the award because of the elements involved,"  Gunderson said. "It’s a pretty tough nomination process. A very large panel has to agree on who goes on the shortlist. When I was first nominated, I thought it was a real bellwether for us whether we won or not because it proved we were on the right path."

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Nass and Gunderson at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in New Orleans.
Nass and Gunderson at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards in New Orleans.

Gunderson and her partner Travis Nass, who managed the beverage program at Lon’s at the Hermosa, started working together in 2012. She was working at a startup company that focused on small batch spirits with distribution in Southern California. When they expanded to Arizona, she recruited Nass for help.

"We became such good friends and trusted confidants that neither one of us made a move personally or professionally without bouncing it off the other," said Gunderson.

One day, the two were talking about the lack of health insurance while working in hospitality — except for the times they had worked for hotels. There were also no long-term pension plans or retirement funds. Yet, emergencies came up: car accidents, illnesses, unexpected diagnoses and funerals.

As they began to dig deeper, they found that some industry workers, including the undocumented and women of color, were especially vulnerable.

“We found out that in the hospitality industry a black woman earns 40 cents to a white man’s dollar.”

In 2018, Gunderson and Nass decided to create a nonprofit with a two-pronged mission: provide emergency funding for hospitality workers and create opportunities for mentorship and career development.

“Anybody can apply,” said Gunderson, “but we want to make sure those groups are empowered.”

Amanda Gunderson received the Pioneer Award for her contributions to the hospitality industry.
Amanda Gunderson received the Pioneer Award for her contributions to the hospitality industry.

Supporting hospitality workers during the pandemic and beyond

The organization gave away close to $4 million to date. During the pandemic, 79,000 people applied. “At one point, we were getting one application per second,” she said. Almost half the money went to undocumented workers, who didn't have access to government pandemic assistance funds.

Now that the acuteness of the pandemic has calmed a bit, Another Round Another Rally has started focusing on education, with all programs piloting in Arizona.

One of the programs was partnering with Century Grand, where seven emerging female bartenders created cocktails that were sold for six weeks, with the proceeds from these cocktails given to the women as grants for professional development to help them obtain the Society of Wine Educators' CSS or Certified Specialist of Spirits certification by passing a difficult exam. Being certified shows mastery of key elements and knowledge of the spirit world and is a widely recognized achievement.

During the six weeks, the bartenders were also paired up with heavy hitters in the cocktail industry for one-on-on mentorship.

"We plan to expand the program to management and chefs in Arizona and we are hoping to take the program nationwide," said Gunderson.

“We are just very proud to be an Arizona-based nonprofit serving this state and the nation,” she said. “That cocktail scene, that restaurant scene, that group of folks. There’s just nothing like it. That’s why we chose Arizona as our base.”

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Reach the reporter at BAnooshahr@azcentral.com. Follow @banooshahr on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona one big at Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Here's why