Bars Need To Be A Safer Place For Everyone. Meet One Of The Women Making It Happen.

Amie Ward is making the hospitality industry healthier and safer for its workers and patrons. Here's how.
"We can create an environment that keeps people safe," Amie Ward says.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Shandi Chester/Getty
"We can create an environment that keeps people safe," Amie Ward says.

Amie Ward has spent her entire adult life working in hospitality, including while pursuing studies in kinesiology and wellness. It didn’t take long for her to see the pain points in the service industry, problems for which her health expertise could often provide solutions. With her consultancy The Healthtender, Ward provides hospitality workers with accessible approaches for handling everything from relationships with alcohol to standing throughout long shifts without damaging one’s body. Her mission to make hospitality healthier for its people physically, mentally and emotionally has now expanded to include training venue staff as executive director of Safe Bars. The organization helps alcohol-serving venues create safe environments for both employees and patrons, with measures to prevent and intervene in cases of discrimination and sexual aggression. The program’s aim is vital, addressing long-running needs in nightlife and hospitality that have long been under the microscope. In this edition of Voices In Food, Ward shares her story in her own words.

How Safe Bars Makes The Industry Safer For Both Workers And Patrons

Safe Bars addresses gender-based violence in the hospitality industry. This industry has higher rates of sexual harassment than any other. At the same time, when looking at trying to prevent sexual harassment and aggression, people in hospitality are in a very unique position to be able to help out with that. We’re where people come to have an experience, with friends or themselves. We’re able to create that experience for them, see everybody coming in, and check in at tables to make sure everyone’s OK and having a good time. We can create an environment that keeps people safe. We can say how we want people to behave in our spaces. We can say, “Hey, that’s not OK.”

We go into any alcohol-serving space and give them the tools to be able to recognize when something’s up, and to be able to intervene safely and non-confrontationally and set the tone of how people are going to experience their night and the hospitality industry in general. We teach bystander intervention: What to look for, how to trust your gut, and our methodology of “the five D’s,” direct, distract, delegate, document, delay. Maybe you can have a direct conversation with somebody if you see something, or you can delegate to someone else, or document what’s going on, or interact with the person who is the target of the aggression rather than the actual aggressor. No matter how you are most comfortable talking with people, you can safely get involved. A de-escalation portion of our training arose out of the pandemic, too. We help staff understand how to help themselves or co-workers if someone is becoming aggressive.

“We can really help reframe the way people think about interactions between humans and set a new tone for how we all behave in and experience these spaces.”

We aim to help people understand the facts related to sexual harassment and assault, who the populations are that are the most vulnerable, why people actually do the aggressing in the first place. Because of the industry we’re working with, we talk extensively about the fact that alcohol does not cause sexual assault. We break down a lot of the victim-blaming narratives that have allowed people to not address this for so long. We talk too about how alcohol can be used as a weapon to incapacitate a target or camouflage the behavior of the aggressor.

There are multiple reasons why this mission is so important. Number one, it’s just the right thing to do. Number two, the service industry is largely built upon the labor of women, and disproportionately women of color. You also have a huge population of LGBTQ community members. These are vulnerable people. In hospitality, we are so reliant on tips because of how low wages are; we allow certain behaviors to go unchecked because our livelihood is at stake. But while the labor force is vulnerable, it is also very powerful. The immediate need is that we must protect the people in the service industry to begin with. And then because we are creating a certain atmosphere for the community, we need to also think about providing a safe space for anybody sitting at our bars.

How Ward Got Involved

I got started in the hospitality industry at the age of 17. I’m from Maryland and [started as] a dishwasher at a crab house, which is about the most Maryland thing you could possibly do. From there, I went in and out of the industry working in every aspect of it, from back-of-house to front-of-house. In the last 15 years, I was primarily running beverage programs and focusing on cocktails.

Meanwhile, I went to school for kinesiology. I have always loved sports. I went to the University of Maryland and when I went into grad school, I ended up doing a master’s program in kinesiology, with a sociology focus. We were learning about the body but also politics of the body, and politics of race and gender. That’s where my advocacy and desire to fight for change came through, alongside my kinesiology studies, and all the while I was working in bars and restaurants.

I thought once I finished my master’s, I’d teach and write. But I ultimately did not enjoy the world of academia. It was publish or perish ... and all old white dudes and very conservative, and I did not fit in that space very well, being a person who’s heavily tattooed with lots of piercings, very loud and outspoken. I went back into hospitality because it was my happy place. I love talking to strangers. I love making drinks.

So I stayed in that world and [began] running bar programs, which felt like a team. It was a beautiful space to be in. At the same time, I started to see some of the things I took for granted in terms of my background and knowledge of health and wellness, areas that just didn’t translate very well in the hospitality industry, especially being a bartender and being out late at night. I was always bringing healthy snacks to work and going to the gym after my shift instead of going out drinking.

“In hospitality, we are so reliant on tips because of how low wages are; we allow certain behaviors to go unchecked because our livelihood is at stake. But while the labor force is vulnerable, it is also very powerful.”

People started asking questions: Why was I bringing these snacks? Why was I going to the gym? Combined with watching people in our industry not take care of themselves and start to have problems with alcoholism, I started talking about it more. We have our own independent craft bartenders guild in Baltimore and had monthly education opportunities at our meetings. In December 2015, I did a little talk about wellness, giving everybody a breakdown on nutrition, what it does for your body when you work out, why I do stretches before I bartend, and how simple it can all be. I was kind of shocked the talk was so well received. In 2015, nobody was really on that self-care train just yet, so it was really nice to see people interested in this.

I started speaking at hospitality conferences, giving talks on physical wellness, nutritional wellness and mental health. People really did want to make an improvement for themselves and just didn’t know how. That’s where I got the idea to start The Healthtender in 2016. I started creating meal prep programs and easy snacks people could have on their shifts. I talked about how people could stand behind the bar without being in pain … basically life hacks on how to bartend and protect your body. I made the jump to doing The Healthtender full time in 2019.

Meanwhile, I had my first training with Safe Bars in 2016 and it totally appealed to me. Everything in its mission is related to wellness, equity and safety. I started running trainings with Safe Bars in 2018. When the pandemic hit, all my clients had to press pause on everything. At the same time, there was so much happening in the industry in terms of safety. There were a lot of escalated issues coming up with how people were treating service workers as a result of having to wear masks. Simultaneously, the craft beer world was starting its own reckoning with sexism, discrimination and sexual aggression. Suddenly there were just nonstop trainings that needed to happen, and Safe Bars was able to create an executive director position when the founder, Lauren R. Taylor, was stepping into some [other endeavors]. I got that role in October 2022.

The overall goal of Safe Bars is to really change the landscape of the hospitality industry and the larger world. My own dream of saving the world is still in there too, because we can really help reframe the way people think about interactions between humans and set a new tone for how we all behave in and experience these spaces.

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