Fear and Loathing at the Oklahoma Restaurant Association Expo

I’ve been in the hospitality industry for nearly all of my working life, so I’ve always heard whispers of the annual Oklahoma Restaurant Association expo.

“All the best restaurants in town are there, and you can eat as much food as you want. There’s free beer and liquor EVERYWHERE. They’ve also got the best porno mags hidden underneath trash cans and behind all the toilets!”

All of that is true except for the last bit about the legends of woods porn, although it honestly wouldn’t be a shock if there were a few copies of ‘JUGS MONTHLY’ stashed away inside the toilet tank of the men’s commode.

Yesterday was my first time to go to the ORA’s yearly bonanza. I was fortunate enough to be invited to judge the Cocktail Shakedown because my other writing gig is for a local food magazine. This involved getting to the State Fairgrounds at 9 am, and drinking by 10:00. Sure, writing may not pay very well, but it does have some perks:

I am no stranger to day drinking, but it is very odd to be doing it in a professional sense at a time and day when brunch is practically banned in Oklahoma City. I could try to count on one hand the establishments that are open and serving liquor at 10am on a Tuesday, but two fingers usually comes across as offensive in someway or another. And usually those places don’t have a DJ playing a dubstep remix of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ three times an hour.

My fellow judges were restaurateurs or the sons of them: the upper crust of Henry Hudsons, a new place that’s about to open up, and the products of the loins of one of the most accomplished chefs in town, these were the men laying judgement upon the poor bartenders ten to twenty years older than our panel. They were all very friendly and white and male, so I fit right in, but the lack of diversity on the judging panel was a bit surprising.

The contestants ranged from some of the best bartenders at the most Yelp!able hipster bars to people from places that I’d never even heard of, which was quite refreshing, to be honest. There were 16 bartenders competing in timed competitions where they had to use specific products, and they were judged on things like the appearance and flavors of their drinks, but also how they interacted with the host and us judges, because after all, they’re still bartenders. Think Chopped but on a more State Fair level. Here are some photos:

In between some of several heats of competitions, I’d take a moment to run to the bathroom, because sampling literally 40 cocktails and 10+ different spirits and trying to balance it out with bottled water does a number on your bladder. During that time, I’d check out the floor of the event.

The ORA exposition brings in not only restaurants, but also distributors of food and liquor, kitchen appliance manufacturers, companies who make hot water heaters and take-out boxes and really anything that would be practical or whimsical in the industry. Every bathroom trip, I was met with men in cheap suits, their essence reeking of the starvation of success. “Yes, you have an Alto-Shaam, but what is your dehydrator situation like? Here’s my card.”

Imagine going into one of the buildings during the Great State Fair of Oklahoma, but instead of carnies trying to sell you leather wallets and framed LED waterfall animations, they’ve zoomed in and focused on your target demographic. Is it time to upgrade the heat lamps on your pass? You’ve already got a distributor for processed chicken breast, how about we get your contract for cheaper?

Trade shows are a hell of a thing, and they are best enjoyed with no spending agenda and more than a dozen people trying to please you with intoxicants. All that said, it was a great time, except for when I had to give shitty ballot votes to my friends who are otherwise fine bartenders but couldn’t help having a heavy hand with the lavender in their simple syrup.

All in all, it was one of the more stressful experiences I’ve ever had day drinking, but when I called my Lyft at four in the afternoon with a complimentary gift basket full of liquor and goofy glassware, I couldn’t really complain…