On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” Zach Geballe and Tim McKirdy address a listener’s question about industry discounts and free drinks, and whether or not they are still something that should be expected in the modern bar landscape. Tune in for more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington. I’m Zach Geballe.
Tim McKirdy: From the VinePair New York City headquarters. I’m Tim McKirdy.
Z: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Tim, another week you double-dip it on podcasts. I want you to spend a moment before we get into what we’ve been drinking this week. I was fascinated. I have to discuss a recent “Cocktail College” episode with you because it was fascinating to me. You had on Jon from Shinji’s talking about — you do your technique episodes, which are I think little interludes between the focuses on classic cocktails or just cocktails, not just classics, of course. I will admit, have you ever heard more, I don’t want to say, elaborate isn’t exactly the right word. You’ve had people on before who do a lot of work to prep their cocktails. I don’t know if anything I’ve heard on the podcast has equaled what they do at Shinji’s to get their drinks ready. Was that your vibe too?
T: Yes. Definitely. I think a parallel could be made with the former bars here. We had Existing Conditions and Booker and Dax, which was the previous situation of that bar. People like Dave Arnold, I think Dave does. I was actually speaking with Jon about this, I think it might have been after, and he actually considers what he does to be very different to what they’re doing. I find that interesting because just for context, these are bars that do a lot of preparation of ingredients and maybe make a lot of things themselves or infuse their ingredients with things. I certainly think that Existing Conditions was maybe a little bit more technique-driven when it came to carbonation and clarification and things like that in the mad scientist thing. Their drinks were delicious. That bar is no longer around so definitely currently in the New York landscape at least. I can’t speak for the whole country, I don’t think I’ve come across a bar that’s doing more behind the scenes than for the ingredients that go into your cocktails.
Z: It’s so interesting because I think sometimes about how a bar, in particular, has to, it doesn’t have to, but perhaps should think about striking a balance between the work that is unseen or even a restaurant. Frankly, this is maybe even better in some ways to think about in terms of a culinary perspective. On the one hand, you don’t ever really want the guest to know just how much work goes into anything that comes in front of them. Part of the beauty of going out is that it seems somewhat effortless whether or not it is but at the same time, I almost think, and again, this is just from hearing you talk about it mostly, that you almost run the risk if you make it look too effortless that it’s hard to then explain the price point to people because, obviously, Shinji’s has a very high price point for cocktails. Is that something that you talk to Jon about?
T: Yes. Definitely. I got the sense from Jon too as well that he tries to judge it on a guest-by-guest basis. He spoke about in the podcast episode that there are certain guests that will come in and have maybe seen the bar on TikTok and want to get the video of throwing liquid nitrogen at the wall, which is sadly something they no longer do so if you didn’t get that video, you won’t be able to anymore. Or just the preparation, the tableside preparation. People are interested in capturing that and that’s something they’re paying for. If a guest starts saying to Jon, “Oh, how is your Vesper slightly different here?” or, “Tell me a little bit more about the gin that’s in this or the vodka or the technique you’re using.” He will use that and he will run with it. I think he doesn’t want to assume that every single person who comes in wants to hear all the work that goes behind it because, at the end of the day, it’s a dance when it comes to hospitality. He doesn’t want to intrude on those guests’ experience, but, to your point, it is difficult or it’s dangerous. Dangerous isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean? You run a risk when the cocktails are that high. If you don’t explain the work behind them somewhat, it can be difficult I think.
Z: Especially when I think as simple as this is, when you’re sitting at a bar and you watch the bartender grab 11 different bottles and pour them together to make a cocktail, you just — intrinsically you’re like, “I get why this drink is $20,” regardless of what’s in those 11 bottles, but when you see it be just a thing poured from a bottle, you are like, “Oh, OK.” Some people might feel that way. I see it just was interesting to me. I was struck when thinking about that or listening to that and thinking about that and wanted a little bit behind the scenes. I guess on the topic of the whole podcast is on the topic of drinking. Tim, what have you had lately that stuck with you?
T: I guess running with that price front for a second too, so I wanted to highlight a meal that I was lucky enough to be invited to last night that was really fun and I think it’s an interesting concept that they’re doing, but before that, I stopped — I was early, I stopped at a nearby bar and had a Martini. Something I genuinely generally enjoy is having a drink on my own at times and just sitting at the bar. It’s a very American thing. It was a Tanqueray Martini, very average and it cost me, with tip, $27 and this wasn’t a notable bar. While the Shinji’s conversation we’re talking about price there, that has literally just become the norm in New York. If you’re tipping a good person, you’re pretty much paying $25 for a cocktail these days, which is crazy, but that’s the state of affairs. Anyway, I wanted to highlight — down at Cathedral, which is part of the Moxy Hotel here on East 11th Street in New York, I was invited by the team there to join for this Babette feast they were doing or this feast that was inspired by the Danish movie “Babette’s Feast.” If you’ve not seen it, anyone, go out. Especially if you’re a food lover, I think you’ll love that film. It also goes in very different directions too. Check it out. It’s something of a classic, I guess, for some people. Matt Strauss is the manager over there. It was his favorite film. He wanted to do an evening that was inspired by the food in that film. There were four courses and it was very classically French. This is the first time in a long time, Zach, where I’ve done a food-pairing meal. I can’t remember the last time I did it before that. It’s something I find very fun to do. We had some delicious Burgundy finished with a nice Cognac, but the first one, this was a new pairing for me and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get it again, but I found it to be delicious Lustau Amontillado sherry paired with turtle soup.
T: It’s my understanding that it was all above board on the turtle front. I don’t know where the legality is, but it’s all above board there. It was the first time I’ve ever had turtle soup and that combo just really was something phenomenal. I wanted to shout that out, say thanks to those guys for having me down. If you’re wondering about that very common question of what to pair with turtle soup, turns out the answer is amontillado sherry.
Z: By the way, for listeners, what to pair with turtle soup is by far the No. 1 question we get on the site. Tim, really some service journalism here. Thank you. No, I cannot claim I have ever had turtle soups or turtle anything, except for turtle cookies or whatever, which do not have turtle.
T: I was surprised I was the only one at the table who hadn’t had it before. I guess I just think the other final thing I wanted to say about that meal was I’d be really interested in — I don’t know whether they’re thinking of doing that as a series or whether anyone else has done this or would like to do it, but we’ve spoken about this before. I’m a big movie fan too, so I’d love to go to more dinners that are inspired by movies. I think that’s, I don’t know, it’s fun.
Z: If you get it right, it could be great. I think it can tip over into a kitschy space pretty easily-
Z: -because I think it’s not untrue that there are — I don’t think there are — that’s a sideline. Let’s not get down the conversation of great movies with food in them or great food movies or whatever. Anyhow, my drinking has been pretty boring lately, honestly. As everyone who listens regularly knows I was sick the previous week. Shockingly the rest of my family has gotten sick. It’s been low-key, trying to just keep things vaguely on the rails at home, which means that my drinking is reserved for when the children are asleep, which is the case normally. Usually, there’s wine with dinner a couple of nights a week at least, and some other things. That means that when I drink at night, it’s usually whiskey neat, maybe Amaro, maybe both. All of which are things I love, of course. I’m not suffering on that front. I will say that the only really intriguing interesting thing beyond that that I’ve had recently is — you’ll appreciate this, Tim, again, because it’s a thing that comes up on “Cocktail College” with some regularity and actually we’re touching on it with Friday’s episode talking about some cocktail stuff was, because I have gotten myself more interested in this general category of drink-making and I’m working on some projects here that will require some bartending, I have been working on building a variety of different syrups and playing with flavors and things like that. One of my favorites which I’ve talked about on the pod before is making my own grenadine which is generally pretty simple if you have pomegranate. It’s basically just a pomegranate syrup which you can spice and add other things too, et cetera, but functionally, just that. Having some success with that really has emboldened me and I’ve been making a lot of strawberry syrup. I’ve been playing around with, “OK, what can I do besides just strawberry?” I made a strawberry rhubarb, which we discussed last week, which was quite nice, goes really beautifully with gin, unsurprisingly. I was like, “What’s the other direction I can take strawberry?” I made a strawberry balsamic syrup that I got to say, just that and some soda water is freaking delicious. It’s a really interesting cocktail ingredient. The balsamic note is a little tricky to pair. I’ve found if you hit it right with the right whiskey, I think it works really well. Interestingly, the best pairing I’ve found with it is actually Cognac. There’s something about the Venice nature of cognac that works with the vinegary note of the balsamic. Yes, I’m just playing around with it, I don’t have a full-on cocktail mapped out in my head yet, but it’s been an interesting one to toy with. Unfortunately, the one downside is that whereas straight strawberry syrup is a beautiful color, the strawberry balsamic syrup is a little less visually appealing.
T: Yes, that’s a tricky one.
Z: Yes, anyhow-
T: Sounds delicious, though.
Z: Yes, I’ll report back, I’m sure I’ll hit on one or two things that really work with it because the syrup itself is so tasty that I find it hard to believe that I can’t find a really enjoyable application.
T: Hey, maybe it might inspire the next modern classic, or the first modern classic non-alcoholic cocktail, who knows?
Z: You never know, from my home bar to the world, who knows? Anyhow, for the episode today, we got a really great question. Again, we love it when we hear from you folks out there who listen firstname.lastname@example.org. This is from listener Kyle, who wrote in and said basically, the question basically of, I’m actually going to quote him here a little sentence or two here from his email. He says basically, “with the growing pressure of operating costs on restaurants, the expectation of restaurants always being a place to give free or discounted products away,” and he’s really referring to friends, to other people in the industry, et cetera, “weighs heavily at the end of the day. Is it still a valid assumption that industry friends and stuff should expect to receive a discount or free product or are we at a point where that’s just too onerous on businesses?” This is a great question, I want to also talk about it after we discuss Kyle’s specific question. I want you and I to talk a little, Tim, about our own feelings on receiving for you, free drinks and things like that when we’re out in our capacity as media members, as journalists, because I think that’s also interesting and worth us talking about for our audience’s sake. To the first point as the nebulous, free drinks for industry members or industry discounts and stuff like that, do you have an immediate response to Kyle here?
T: Yes, I think it’s a really great question, and yes, thanks a lot to Kyle for writing in and posing that for us. My first thought on this topic is that recently, and I don’t know, I’d love to get your take of this is very common, Zach. Recently, I learned that bars, most bars maybe will have a tab in their system and an amount where all the free drinks they give away is rung up. Basically, they will have a budget for the month, “This is how many drinks we can comp this month,” whether that is to industry friends, or maybe employees that work there, or perhaps media, or whatever, right? They will have a set total for the month, so they will budget for it. That’s the way if you’re going to do it, I think that’s the way you have to do it. This is product, you have questions of inventory at the end of the month, and this is a business that you’re running. You can’t just be giving out free drinks and not running it through the system. Is that very common, because I’ve never worked behind the bar or in a customer-facing role in hospitality. Is that the industry standard there?
Z: There are a few different possible solutions to this, the one you described, Tim, is definitely one that I’ve heard of before. I’ve actually never worked somewhere that had just a set budget for the week or month or whatever, even a shift. Most of the places I worked had either a basic policy that was like, “Here are the circumstances under which it’s acceptable for you to comp a drink, or just drink or whatever, or food or whatever.” Or just more of a policy of you got to run it by your manager, whoever’s in charge. You can say, “So and so works with the bar down the street, can we comp their drink, or can we get by, send them a free appetizer or whatever?” Often had a more standardized policy for employees of the restaurant or restaurant company or whatever. I agree that from a business best practices standpoint, you definitely should account for those things. There are a lot of reasons why that’s very important to do, inventory being one of them, and just general accounting. Also, frankly, so that the proprietor, the operator, the managers, et cetera, have an idea for how much free product is actually going across the bar, going out through the kitchen, or whatever, because it can pretty quickly get into a bad space. Setting all of the accounting aside, specifically, I think, part of Kyle’s question here too that’s worth noting is, is it fair, is it right, is it appropriate for industry members, et cetera, to walk into any bar, any restaurant and expect a special treatment. Free drinks, discounted drinks, et cetera, just by virtue of being in the industry? That to me, I think, is a really interesting thing to dig into because I think I have definitely encountered that on all sides. I’ve been the person out somewhere who is in the industry and is going to a place where I know that some of the people who work there and I’ll be candid, definitely hoped/expected that I get some preferential treatment. It is one of the things that’s considered by a lot of people who work in the restaurant and bar industry as a perk of the job. Yes, you might work sh*tty hours, yes, you might not make a whole lot of money in some cases, but you’re going to be up in the “industry” and thus get perks from it, like discounted drinks, free drinks, free food, et cetera. At the same time, as a person who’s working, you also have to balance those things. It’s always a little touchy, you never want, I think. It’s always, at least in my experience, I certainly always tried to not expect too much, to be gracious, to understand if and when. It was like, “Hey, you came in and you ordered these things, you have to pay for them,” because in the end, that’s the reality with bars and restaurants, you pay what you order for. Often where the perks would come, it would be extra little freebies. You get a little extra course when you’re dining out or someone pours you a little taste of something that they might not afford for other people at the bar. All those things that are nice and are not even exclusive to just people in the industry. Sometimes they’re things that are given out to guests who are cool, for lack of a better word, that the bartender or the server whomever wants to toss a little reward to. I don’t know, as someone who’s worked in the restaurant industry, but maybe not in a while, would you think that that’s a fair stance?
T: I think that’s very reasonable. We’re talking about the hospitality industry here. The very nature of hospitality is those little gestures going above and beyond, whether that is, like you said, for just a random guest who’s cool, or maybe they’re celebrating something, or whether it’s for someone who’s in the industry. To your point, I do think that this is one of the perks of working in the industry. It feels good, as you say, to walk in somewhere where they know you and maybe be greeted by something small, it’s a really nice touch. Honestly, I don’t — actually, I’ll avoid the economics for a second here. I want to say, I agree with you too with the caveat that it’s on the individual who’s on the receiving end to be respectful and to not take the piss and to be a good guest, and also not to overdo it. If you go into a bar every night after your shift maybe, maybe don’t expect that you’re going to get a free drink every night. Maybe it’s one every other night or whatever, right? On random occasions. Don’t expect it and be respectful of the people there. I do think that things like this, practices like this are why we talk about a bar and restaurant community. That camaraderie there between people from different establishments, and that helps build community.
Z: I didn’t get that. Please repeat again.
T: Sorry, my Siri watch is going off. We’re having it all here. The economic side of things — I wanted to mention something too. Now Siri is going off and Jesus. Let’s just take it from there, Zach, sorry. Sorry, do you want to just follow up to that? Because I’m completely blanking and I said I would sidestep, but I do have something for later.
Z: I think you’re right, the community part of it is both a really important part for me. It was a big important part of working in the restaurant industry when I did. That sense of esprit de corps and the fact that you also realize people around the restaurants a lot, bars a lot. You never know when he might be working with someone when they might be working with you. To say nothing of what might have happened in the past. Obviously, that’s just a general reason to try to treat people well, generally, of course. Also, yes, you just never know when someone’s going to pop up wherever. I do think that it would be — places I think most bars and restaurants should have some kind of, whether it’s even just a 15 percent or 20 percent discount whether it’s a somewhat unspoken policy. They’re like, “Yes, you can take care of your industry, friends et cetera.” Because I think that does foster just good vibes in the space in the community that is shared, et cetera. I think the piece that I want to also talk about, as I mentioned at the top is, you know, for you and me now being in this role more as journalists and as media members than as people working directly in the food and beverage industry. I do think it’s become a little bit more, I’m not sure personally how to navigate sometimes the world of a proper free drink. Now, to be clear for me most of the time this happens when I’m at a friend’s bar, and I also don’t function in — I don’t review bars. I don’t really write about bars. I’m not here to necessarily publicize or do anything. To word I don’t really talk much on here even about places I go because again, as has been noted many times on this podcast, I have kids and go nowhere. I am the least useful influencer in that space possible. There’s a question of journalistic ethics and just what does it mean to get a free drink when you are someone who has some relation to this industry that’s not directly it? I’m curious about your thoughts on this, Tim?
T: That’s a great question. Something that’s probably been as old as time in the editorial field but definitely more and more these days, this question of journalistic ethics. At what point you need to maybe highlight that you had received a free drink somewhere. Maybe at this point, I should be saying, yes, that I was kind enough to be on the receiving end of that meal last night. I was invited down as someone from the media, but it was a public event and there was public there. If it’s in a story, or if we’re talking about things on a podcast, should you mention that these things were free? I mean, I think it’s a case-by-case scenario, but ultimately, as a journalist, you have to be true to yourself and have ethics yourself. Say, for example, you’re talking about a bar or a drink. You’re reviewing something. You need to make sure that the reason you’re including a bar in a roundup is because you genuinely think it’s good, regardless of whether you’ve ever had free drinks there or not. You cannot use this profession. I’m sorry to say it does happen. I see it very, very frequently, where people use their profession and their title, basically just as a way of bankrolling their life when it comes to eating out and drinking out all the time. It’s shocking. For myself as a journalist, this speaks to the economics thing I want to mention earlier too. Yes, I think that A) when it comes to looking at a bar and judging a bar properly, I want to go in of my own accord, and I don’t want the bar to know that I’m in it. Eventually, I hope we’ll get to chatting and they will soon maybe realize that we’re in a tangential industry. Then otherwise, if I have been invited to a bar to check it out, maybe by their PR team, or maybe I know them, and there’s an understanding that they’re going to comp the drinks. I’m basically going to spend the same amount of money and leave it as a tip. Someone there is getting that money, no one’s being done out of their wage. I’m hoping too that again, maybe they do have that system where they’ve budgeted for this. They’re like, “We are able to take care of that.” I think you have to urge people if you get a free drink still tip on it. If anything, tip double, triple what you would have done for the bill, so that the cost is kind of being made up there.
Z: Exactly. I think we have a tipping episode on deck so we will save that broader conversation for down the road. I do think that there is an element of, to me it’s — you made a lot of really good points, Tim. I mean, I think that idea of obviously, not letting whatever you might get free or discounted affect what you choose to highlight or how you would talk about an establishment or a drink or a product or whatever. There are two other bits of economics that I think have to be considered that, frankly, in the conversation around journalistic ethics don’t always get talked about. One of them is that the reality is that whether you’re a freelancer or staff at a publication, budgets are finite. These jobs have a lot of nice things about them. They don’t necessarily pay incredibly well. As you just talked about in a world where you’re basically Tanqueray Martini cost you $25, there is a limit to what the average writer, podcaster, journalist, whatever, can legitimately afford to pay to provide the kind of assessment of a venue that they might want to. That their listeners, readers, whatever might want. There are a few notable exceptions to these places that have very deep pockets that can fully bankroll any kind of meal that their reviewer might want to have. They might have the initials NYT and that’s great for those establishments of those companies. They have very stringent ethics rules, in part because they have the money to back them up. For a lot of other publications, a lot of other, you know — again, especially in the freelance world, but even again, for people on staff and things like that. You do have to walk something on the line because a lot of the things in the drink space and the food space, are their nature expensive. It’s not plausible for someone to go to these places and pay for them fully out of their own pocket unless they’re, I don’t know independently wealthy or have a wealthy partner or something like that. In that case, I guess great. That’s not the kind of gatekeeping we want to do in this industry and in covering the industry. There is an element of push and pull that has to come. Same thing with travel and things like that. Again, where just budgets are what they are, and we live in a media environment where cutting costs or keeping costs under control is a priority for a lot of various publications. Again, to say nothing of people who are freelancing, who generally don’t get expenses paid and things like that. There’s all that and then there’s the last piece of it that I think is important to note too here. Which is that all of what I said I think is true, and yet it remains very important for anyone who’s covering this industry to be very keenly attuned to the fact that the experience that you might have as a recognized comped member of the media, may bear almost no resemblance to the experience that a guest has. If you yourself can’t be the person who goes in and has that anonymous standard experience because you’re well known by the publicist team or you just don’t have the money or whatever. There are lots of ways around that. One of the most interesting ones I’ve found and then I think it’s worth looking for is reaching out to people on social media who post about these places and asking them on or off the record, “What was your experience like?” I have done this a few times when I’ve seen interesting things posted. Again, I’m not a reviewer, I’m not so concerned about getting an exact assessment of a place but it’s always really useful to get that perspective from someone who presumably did pay their own money to have those drinks, have that food, have both whatever. Because, again, sometimes you get a very — you get the version put forward by the PR team. When you go in there as a member of the media and that’s fine. They can’t truly hide anything that’s horribly off but it may not be representative of what the average person’s experience is. If you can’t, again, afford one way or another to have that experience yourself, getting it secondhand is, I think, a good alternative.
T: Definitely. To your point about asking people whether it’s on or off the record what their experience has been because there will become a point where if a bar knows you and they know you’re in the media and frankly if they’re smart because you want the media to think favorably of you, they will treat you slightly differently. It shouldn’t be the case, but it is. Whenever I speak with other writers on that topic about a new bar or somewhere new that’s opened, if someone asked me for my opinion, I would generally make it explicitly clear like, “Oh, I thought it was great, but I was there or I went there for an event,” or I will give my opinion of like, “Yes, I went there on my own dime and it was absolutely incredible.” There is a distinction there. It reminds me also of an experience that I had recently, which I think something maybe people that run bars that are listening to this might be useful for too. I was somewhere very fancy here in New York at their bar, it’s primarily known as a restaurant. I was there actually with VinePair’s tastings director, Keith Beavers, and former producer on this pod. Keith and I went for a cocktail, and again, this was on our own dime before we were going to a meal. I posted about it online because I enjoyed the drink and the bar looked great, so I posted it on my Instagram. Within 24 hours, the place’s PR team had reached out and said, “Oh, we saw you were there. We hope you had a great time. We’d love for you to come back and get to know a little bit more about the drinks program.” I actually was there again a couple of days later because I had a friend in town, and again, PR, none of them knew I was going. I was already in their system at that point, and I guess they might have put a note on whatever. The beverage director came over and actually very kindly took care of a round of drinks for us. I just thought that was a really classy move. Again, I hadn’t told them I was coming because I just wanted to take a friend there that I thought it was cool. I think that’s a classy move, A, but B) something that bars should be monitoring. If they’re being tagged in things, doing just that little bit of extra work to be like, “Oh, is this someone who could potentially matter in media or whatever and how can we follow up? Can we invite them back?” Again, like I said, I think that’s pretty classy. I don’t think it’s unethical in any way right?
Z: Yes. I think it would be a good thing for these kinds of places to consider with anyone who tags them because you never know. Someone doesn’t necessarily have to be a masked head somewhere. I don’t even mean they necessarily have to be a person with 50,000 Instagram followers, but it’s one of those things where to — we all know how valuable word of mouth is, and obviously, word of mouth can spread via lots of means, including social media. It may be that a person who posts about a drink in a bar has 300 followers, but those 300 followers, if five of them show up and have the drink, that’s a big deal for a bar or a restaurant. I think it’s always good restaurants, I got a whole other episode don’t have time for it, but I think there’s a lot that can be done about finding ways to make those points of connection to have these things be more not quite so I guess tawdry but to be like, “Hey, I see you or recognize you in the same way that you might.” To go back to the topic of at hand, offered a couple of drinks for someone who works in a bar, restaurant in town or whatever. There are ways that you can nod, tip the hat to someone on the media side without it being clearly transactional.
T: I hope I didn’t come across there as being, you should only care about the media. You should definitely care about-
Z: No, you didn’t. I wanted to just mention that it’s a good practice.
T: Across the board.
Z: Social media, the practices are a big part of the places that do it well. It’s very obvious and they have a — whether it’s in-house or someone they’ve hired or whatever to handle it. When establishments are deft on social media, they get those things right, along with a lot of other things. Anyhow, Tim, fascinating conversation as always. Everyone out there listening, please, like Kyle, send us your questions, your prompts, your thoughts. Tell us how right or wrong we are email@example.com. Always great to hear from you. Tim, I’ll talk to you on Friday.
T: Sounds good. Thanks, Zach.
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