KC’s PopFest cocktail extravaganza takes an army of volunteers

08/11/2014 7:00 AM

08/12/2014 7:26 PM

Peach-infused rum, ginger syrup, Cognac, bitters and vanilla-rum ice cream.

Courtney Crockett combined these cocktail ingredients in a Kerr glass canning jar for her entry in the Mixtapes & Mixology competition held in July as a warmup for this month’s Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival. Down-home goodness was her vibe, and local bluegrass band Loaded Goat her inspiration.

Crockett didn’t win (that honor went to Zac Snyder of Justus Drugstore), but she clearly knows cocktails. She should. Crockett tends bar at Cocobolos in Overland Park; barbacks (serves as the bartender’s assistance) and oversees the door and floor at Manifesto in the Crossroads Arts District; and is active in the Kansas City chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG).

How did Crockett get her start?

By volunteering at PopFest back when she was still working as a paralegal. Her passion for Kansas City’s hospitality industry has grown into a new career and led her to take on more responsibility with the festival. Last year, Crockett was its volunteer coordinator; this year, she’s in charge of ticket and merchandise sales.

“I’m an excellent example of how supportive and amazing our community is,” Crockett says. “That’s the mentality surrounding PopFest and the USBG — they’re all opportunities to advance the craft and highlight the amazing talent in this city. I feel like the most fortunate person to be a part of it.”

As PopFest has grown from a stand-alone Bartending competition into a five-day educational and entertainment extravaganza, its need for volunteers has grown with it. A cadre of pros has already spent months organizing the festival, and 70 more enthusiasts are expected to help in its Aug. 20-24 run. Most live in the area, but PopFest is increasingly attracting supporters from St. Louis, Denver, Chicago, Omaha and other cities.

Everyone’s welcome, says PopFest co-founder Doug Frost.

“The only way an event like this can continue to thrive and grow is if it’s fed by more people,” says Frost, a wine and spirits educator, Star columnist and consultant who is both a master of wine and master sommelier. “It generates more buzz, new ideas, new creativity and new challenges for everybody here.”

This year’s schedule touches on everything from tea cocktails and distilling to pisco, mezcal and sherry to cocktail history and mixology techniques. Feeling competitive? Check out the free-wheeling Midwest Melee, Washington Cup Spirits Competition, Samogon/London Vodka Cocktail Competition and the Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition.

Frost and his PopFest collaborators, Ryan Maybee of Manifesto and the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange and Brandon Cummins of the consultancy Liquid Minded Concepts, still oversee the festival. But this year they’ve delegated more responsibility to veteran volunteers like Berto Santoro, bar manager at Extra Virgin, who is PopFest’s director of operations.

Santoro is charged with getting the right drinks in front of the right people at the right time. Pulling that off will be a logistical feat, given that there are almost 20 events in more than half-dozen locations in downtown, midtown and Lenexa. Each requires at least two or three unique cocktails.

Where does Santoro start? With the recipes. Once he has them, Santoro calculates the quantities and proportions necessary for crowd-sized batches. Next, he creates a master list of everything, from cases upon cases of spirits and liqueurs to bitters, sugar, citrus and other fresh produce. He coordinates deliveries from sponsors and purchases from local stores. He outlines how each needs to be prepared and he creates a schedule for getting it all done.

If a day’s worth of seminars requires three gallons of lemon juice, someone in the scullery (a centralized storehouse and kitchen) has to wash, cut and juice three cases of lemons. Syrups must be made and cooled, garnishes prepped and spirits measured. Everything goes on the list.

“We double-check it all a million times, then we double-check it with Arturo (Vera-Felicie) to make sure we have everything we need,” Santoro says.

Vera-Felicie is in charge of the scullery’s inventory and has created a color-coded system to efficiently and securely track ingredients by day and seminar. As if that’s not enough, the Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen bartender also plans to pitch in on other events.

“I might start at 8 a.m. and not get to bed until 4 a.m.,” says Vera-Felicie, who credits his organizational skills and endurance to a decade of industry involvement and service in the U.S. Marine Corps. “You have to be fresh every morning, and be in a good mood. The gift of coffee is always welcome!”

If organization is the first step, execution is next. PopFest has in past years relied on a small group of bartenders to turn out a high volume of drinks. This year, Scott Tipton, a bartender at Julep Cocktail Club, created a program called PoPs (Purveyors of Potables) to expand the effort.

Tipton modeled PoPs after the Cocktail Apprentice Program at Tales of the Cocktail, the oldest and biggest cocktail festival, held in New Orleans. The festival serves more than 150,000 cocktails to some 20,000 attendees each July. PopFest is nowhere near that scale, at this point attracting a few hundred hard-core participants, but it will benefit from more structure, says Tipton, a two-time Tales of the Cocktail volunteer who this year served as a team leader in the apprentice program.

The PoPs assigned to each event will coordinate with presenters and planners, batch drinks at the scullery and transport them where needed in five-gallon buckets. Once on-site, they’ll shake and stir, pour, garnish and serve before cleaning up.

The work comes with a lot of camaraderie, as well as the very real benefit of networking with industry luminaries, Tipton says.

“We have great people coming through Kansas City, and this allows folks who are otherwise working behind the scenes to build relationships with them,” he says. “All of the sudden, their resource isn’t Dale DeGroff’s book, but Dale DeGroff.”

Often referred to as “King Cocktail,” DeGroff is the New York-based author of “The Craft of the Cocktail” (Random House), a bar book that is widely credited with reviving craft cocktails.

Events take more than cocktail celebs and drinks, though. They also need people to perform a myriad of tasks. That’s where Hannah Hartman Frost comes in.

“I literally go through every single step. I walk around the room and think, ‘When I’m done with my cup, who do I give it to?’” says Frost, an on-premise wine sales professional for beverage alcohol distributor Glazer’s Midwest and PopFest’s volunteer coordinator. (Hartman Frost is the daughter of Doug Frost.)

Every event’s different. Some, like the Art of Tasting Pisco, require people to set the room, take tickets, pour samples and clean up. The Agave & BBQ lunch needs even more people to serve food and bus tables, but seminars at Lenexa’s Dark Horse Distillery require fewer volunteers, thanks to the dozen or so distillery staff who help.

And then there’s the Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition at the Uptown Theater.

“During the Bartending competition, it’s all hands on deck,” says Kansas City middle school teacher Lizzie Sepe, who also works as a hostess at Julep and volunteers at PopFest.

Bars for each of the 12 finalists must be set up and stocked, as do two bars on the main stage. Trucks have to be unloaded, extension cords taped down, audiovisual equipment brought online and food stations positioned.

Competing bartenders arrive around midday to begin making the big batches that ticket holders get to taste. Most bring a friend or two to help, and PopFest pairs out-of-towners with Kansas City bartenders to aid in prepping and serving. (Only bartenders with Kansas City liquor permits can serve alcohol in the city.) For anything else, they just ask 2013 winner Paige Unger.

“I’m there for the competitors,” says Unger, who manages the American Restaurant’s bar and is assisting with the event this year. “Whatever they need, I’m there to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.”

Once the competition begins, even more volunteers attach microphones, introduce competitors, manage social media feeds, sell T-shirts, distribute and collect drink tokens and keep the onstage bars stocked.

Cocktails and contests are just part of PopFest, though. Bands must also be booked, restaurants collaborated with, sponsors cultivated, hotel and meeting rooms booked, transportation arranged and glassware ordered.

These and countless other details are happily handled by supporters like Bryan Azorsky of Prairie Village, co-owner of Bagettes.com and TinManPrints.com, who designed PopFest’s website, assists in seminars and drives visiting personalities between locations.

“It’s fun to pitch in,” says Azorsky, whose PopFest involvement led him to join USBG and begin leading consumer tastings for Dark Horse Distillery. “It helps me appreciate what these guys do every day.”

Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Star's Food section and she writes a monthly cocktail and spirits column.

How to join in

So who can volunteer? Anybody over 21, says Scott Tipton, a bartender at Julep Cocktail Club and coordinator of the PoPs program.

“They can be an enthusiast, bartender, server — anybody who wants to get involved and contribute, not just to the growth of PopFest, but also the growth of Kansas City,” Tipton says. “The more hands the better.”

For more information, go to popfestkc.com and click on “volunteer” for an application.

Tickets are available for individual events. An educational pass to 11 of PopFest’s seminars is also available. For details, go to popfestkc.com.

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