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Lauren Friel is a freelance writer and sommelier, and owner of Rebel Rebel, a feminist natural wine bar in Union Square’s Bow Market. Fueled by a drive to bring good wine to everyone’s table, Lauren has served as Wine Director at award-winning restaurants Sarma and Oleana, and has written wine programs for establishments like Committee Restaurant, The Wine Bottega, and Michelin-recognized Dirt Candy NYC. She’s been named one of Imbibe Magazine’s 75 People to Watch in 2019, as well as won Wine Enthusiast’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants Award — twice. Her writing has appeared in ChefsFeed, Boston.com, Eater, The Kitchn, Thrillist, and more, and she’s been featured in Food & Wine, Forbes, Elle Magazine, Eater, the Boston Globe, and other publications.
Meet her at this month’s Open Doors, presented by BNY Mellon, on June 17th.
Zoe Dobuler: Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you found your way to founding Rebel Rebel?
Lauren Friel: I got my start in the industry waiting tables in college, and I ended up — after lots of jobs, your standard college serving gigs — working for Savenor’s Market, where Julia Child used to shop in Cambridge. It was a really cool environment — I’d never been around specialty or fine food before in my life, and I got really curious about it and ended up digging really deep into it. I actually became their cheese monger. And folks would always come into Savenor’s and ask me about the cheese, but then they’d ask me what they should be drinking with it. And I realized that I didn’t know. And so I thought maybe I should get a serving job to start learning about wine. At that point, I just thought, what’s the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at in Boston? And at the time it was Oleana, and I applied for a job serving there, and got the job.
At that point, I wasn’t sure what my next step was going to be — I was thinking of going to culinary school and I had also started baking at Sofra part time to see if that was something I wanted to do. But the thing that really stuck was wine, and the woman who was there in the sommelier position when I was serving left a few years after I started to go work for David Chang in New York, and when she was leaving she pulled me aside and said, “You should apply for this job.” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? I don’t know anything about this!” I ended up applying, but they gave the job to someone else. But he ended up only working out for a couple of months, so I walked in one day and the owners handed me what had been dubbed the “wine laptop” and they were like, “We don’t know what’s been going on for the last six months, can you figure it out?” And I figured it out! I was there for eight years all together — two years as a server and five as the Wine Director. And I became the group’s executive beverage director, so I did the wine program at Sarma and also helped with some programming at Sofra.
And then after I’d won some local and national awards I figured it was time for me to move on. I didn’t know what the next step was, so I decided to take some time off, and I freelanced for a couple of years doing food and wine writing and I started a consulting company where I would write wine programs for other restaurants.
Then, one of my friends is Alex Whisnant of Gaté Comme des Filles, the chocolatier in Bow Market, and she got in touch and said, “Hey, this Bow Market thing is happening, it seems pretty cool, you should talk to the developers, because they want to put a wine bar in there.” I originally didn’t really want a brick and mortar — I was happy freelancing and consulting — but the opportunity to open in Bow Market was too great. I signed up with them two years ago, and we opened in September of 2018.
ZD: So, it sounds like you didn’t always know you wanted to be in the entrepreneurial space.
LF: I first got into the entrepreneurial aspect with my freelancing and consulting — I had a company going with regular clients, and I was supporting myself that way. But this was a way to do the brick and mortar in a way that’s actually sustainable. I have a lot of feelings about how sustainable the restaurant industry is these days, especially in Boston where rent is outrageous and the laws are so strict. But, for me, I looked at the opportunity and what was possible there and felt like I’d kick myself in five years if I didn’t grab it. Just from a business perspective, the way that we’re able to operate in that space doesn’t exist anywhere else in Massachusetts, maybe not even in the nation.
ZD: You’ve described Rebel Rebel as a “feminist wine bar” — how do you integrate a feminist and activist sensibility into your business model?
LF: I’ve worked in so many different restaurants, and it was never the space that I wanted it to be — as a woman, as a queer woman, as a trauma survivor — it was never what I wanted it to be. It was never a space that was really for me, ever, even when I was successful and by all accounts at the top of my game. You could never be really fully who you are and speak in the way that makes you feel safe and be heard in a way that makes you feel safe, and that was really important to me. If I was going to exist in this space every day, I wanted it to be exactly what I wanted.
We have an all-female staff — it’s not really on purpose, I just haven’t had many men apply. It just kind of ended up that way. We’re also a mostly queer staff. Rebel Rebel are a place where conversations about our health, wellness, mental health, and political health happen often, and we try to be a space for the community of people who identify as part of a group of humanity that is not always in charge, whatever that means.
We try to always be a safe space for everyone, and to really put our money where our mouths are. We do a lot of fundraising, especially for women’s reproductive rights, which is what we’ve been doing a lot of over the past few weeks. We also are a space where you can come in and say, “I’m having a bad day” and that’s an okay thing to say. In the restaurant business in particular there’s always been this kind of militant culture of you never call out sick, you’re always early, you never complain, you leave your baggage at the door, and that’s not a realistic way for anyone to live or work, particularly if you want everyone to be in a good headspace. None of that is healthy. So we close earlier than we could because I want my staff to be able to sleep and not be walking home at 2am. We have a zero-tolerance policy for any behavior that we judge to be discriminatory or unsafe, and the staff is empowered to engage with guests who might be exhibiting those behaviors. It’s not “the customer is always right” — and I know that’s a tough pill for a lot of folks to swallow, but the only way we can change the industry is to stop glossing over really bad guest behavior with that kind of mentality. It’s not customer service, it’s adults acting like children, often, and that’s not valuable.
I think about a lot of this — I’ve been in the industry for almost 18 years at this point — so I think about it a lot. And I’ve been the server who’s being sexually harassed by a guest and who brings it to management’s attention and they say, “Well, he’s a good regular customer, just deal with it.” And that’s unacceptable to me.
ZD: In the wake of Alabama’s abortion ban, Rebel Rebel announced Rosé for Resistance, an initiative where you donated 100% of rosé sales to the Yellowhammer Fund. Can you tell us more about the initiative, and your thoughts on the intersections between food/drink and activism?
LF: That legislation got passed and it was enraging, and having an all female staff who all have uteruses, everyone was really upset. And for me, my staff is the most important thing in my life: Their wellbeing is what allows me to create this space, and so I was already thinking about what we could do, but then they all started coming in one by one the day after the Alabama legislation was passed, and I knew we really needed to do something.
I also just the right thing to do. It’s good to make money, but we don’t need all the money. I could have kept a lot of that, but at a certain point it’s hard to look around you and keep the money for yourself when there are people who so desperately need it, and when there’s this legislation being passed by our government that leaves us powerless. At a certain point, it’s time to open your wallet and do what you can.
I also used to work at Planned Parenthood — I was a hotline worker for a couple of years. And you field a lot of calls, anything from women calling about abortion options, or people calling about STI concerns, or people in domestic violence situations — you get everything. And we worked with abortion funds when I was on the hotline, so I knew how important they were even in a state like Massachusetts where we’ve had pretty open access to abortion for a long time, comparatively. They’re still really important for women who don’t have access to transportation, or who are uninsured. So, I knew that if this legislation actually went into effect, that they’d need to start flying women out of the state to receive care. And that’s those women’s only option at that point, when no clinic can help; it’s these independent abortion funds who will step in. So, that’s why I chose to support the Yellowhammer Fund.
So, I just threw something up on our Instagram, I didn’t really think twice about it. I’m naturally the kind of person who will just do something and then figure it out later, which is a blessing and a curse — my general manager can definitely attest to that! So, I threw the post up and was like, that’s it. It was the Wednesday after the legislation was passed, and I was like we’re doing this, we’re donating all the rosé. That night was bonkers. We had too many people; we sold out of rosé almost immediately, which was amazing. So, I was like, “Oh, ok this is a bigger thing than I thought it would be!” The most incredible thing was I didn’t even have to ask people for donations — my distributors, wine makers from California, everywhere, were sending me messages saying, “We want to donate wine, how many cases can you take?” At the end of the day we had about 40 cases donated. Even other restaurants and retail shops were sending us wine — it was amazing.
And then Emily Isenberg [of Isenberg Projects] called and was like, how can I help you? Her team made a website and social media flyers, they set up a GoFundMe, and that enabled even more people to get involved. All told, we had around 30 restaurants, both locally and across the U.S., who got involved, which is incredible, and who did their own version of things. We raised $27,000 just at the bar, and other people are still tallying their counts. It was way bigger than I thought it would be. Initially I thought if we could raise a couple grand that would be great, I wasn’t expecting to raise the amount that we did.
And I think that, in terms of the intersection of food and activism, we’re living in a time where you can’t separate activism from other parts of your life anymore. You just can’t. The stakes are too high. I don’t want to be the person who looks back in 50 years and thinks, “What more could I have done?” For me, it’s a natural thing — activism has been part of my personal life for a long time, so when I opened a business it felt like a natural thing that would be a part of the business as well.
Before we started doing the heavy fundraising for Yellow Hammer we always just had a jar on the back bar that we call the “karma jar,” and we rotate the donations between organizations like Planned Parenthood and Respond, which is an organization that helps domestic violence survivors. I’m a domestic violence survivor, so that’s an important thing to me. And people just throw their pocket change in there, but it’s a small opportunity for people to do something daily.
I think restaurants and bars being social settings make them a most natural mate to activism, too. It can get overwhelming and depressing to focus on everything that needs to be done in the world right now, and a lot of times folks get so overwhelmed that nothing gets done. And I think that being in a social situation, being in the hospitality industry, we’re in this unique position: People are out there having a good time, and we can present an opportunity for them to engage with activism in a way that feels immediate and positive. And that’s a more sustainable approach to activism. It’s important to know all the information and to be informed, but humans can only take so much negative information before they feel hopeless. And I think that enabling folks to participate and engage in a way that feels less hopeless is more sustainable.
ZD: What do you think is unique about Boston’s food scene? How has it changed since you’ve been in Boston?
LF: It’s definitely gotten a lot better! And it’s still on an upward swing. Folks like to complain about the Boston food scene, but I think those folks aren’t paying attention. Or they’re looking at the same places they’ve always looked and wondering why they haven’t changed.
But what I think has always made it unique is how female-driven our food scene is: Some of our biggest food and beverage personalities have been women. I think also that we have an incredibly supportive community here. I’ve done consulting work in other cities, and in New York in particular, and it is dog-eat-dog, very competitive, very cutthroat. But in Boston we’ve got that scrappy little sister vibe; we’re always trying to compete with other cities and get noticed, and I think we support each other because of that.
Folks are also starting to think differently about what dining should look like, and I think that there’s a lot of innovation happening in this city thanks to our proximity to academic institutions that foster a lot of curiosity. I think that folks are looking at more pop-ups and food halls, and what fine dining looks like — does it have to be a tasting menu? Does it have to have wine pairings? How are we going to engage with food and beverage? And I think folks are also understanding the need for a more diverse food and beverage community. We still have a lot of work to do in that regard, and I can’t speak to it fully as a white woman, but folks are starting to think and talk about representation more and about how segregated we are as a city, in terms of our neighborhoods and who we’re interacting with on a daily basis, and how we could be doing better and bringing people together.
And not for nothing. I think what has been going on politically over the last few years has made people dig into their communities in a way that they maybe hadn’t before — searching for that connection and sense of safety — and I think that’s going to benefit us in the long term. A lot of folks who might have kicked off to New York to open their restaurant will maybe hang out and do it here, which we need.
ZD: Rebel Rebel is located within Bow Market, which you mentioned is a really unique space in Greater Boston, and maybe even in the country. What has it meant for you and your business to be part of that entrepreneurial community?
LF: I couldn’t do what we’re doing at Rebel Rebel anywhere else. One hundred percent. I wanted to open my version of a tiny European wine bar where the focus is on the social interactions; you’re not fussing over food, you’re not thinking about wine pairings, it’s about the pure enjoyment of the space, and your community, and the wine itself. The wine is a vehicle for all that.
The thing about Bow Market that allows me to do that is that it’s a space where the rent is very low compared to market standard, and because we all share a liquor license, I didn’t have to buy one, which would have been a huge expense. Because we share a license, I also don’t have to have a full kitchen, and I can just have snacks and that’s fine. It also means that our overhead is a lot lower: Our entry point build-out costs were very low. I was able to build this thing that I wanted at a manageable cost. We’re not in debt, and that’s unheard of.
It also is a place where we can build community together. We’re definitely a space where folks will come out — you see it on days that are perfect backyard grilling days, all the folks who don’t have a backyard come and hang out at Bow Market instead. It’s a fun, neighborhood hang. And all of that, our overhead being so low, all those things, allows us to offer most of what we pour for much, much less than it should be, which is the whole point. I wanted Rebel to be a space where wine is for the people. I wanted it to be for everyone, and I wanted everyone to have access in a way that’s affordable.
ZD: What advice would you give to someone looking to break into Boston’s food and beverage scene?
LF: The first thing I would say is do it. In restaurants there are rules about what you have to have when you open: how you have to do things, what your menu has to have on it, what your wine list has to have on it — it seems like you have to have a sauvignon blanc, you have to have a kale salad, you have to have a full kitchen. Forget all of that. If you have a cool idea for a restaurant where people eat hot dogs on, I don’t know, ottomans, great — do it. We don’t need more restaurants with sauvignon blancs and kale salads — there are plenty of those, and none of them are doing very well. We need more interesting, fun, creative, daring concepts. If you have an idea and a couple of people say, “Oh, no you can’t do that, it won’t work,” and you can come up with the money in a way that’s sustainable, do it.
I’ve also been in rooms where people are talking about restaurant build-out and it’s custom this, expensive linens, custom furniture. People spend stupid money on restaurant openings, and then they’re in debt and they can never get out of it. And it’s never worth it. Your guests aren’t going to notice the thread count on your linens. Spend the money on the bathrooms, because that’s the only place they’re alone and not distracted. But, if you can’t open a restaurant that’s going to be sustainable, it’s not worth it. But if you have a crazy idea and can do it sustainably, then do the thing.
This Change Maker interview was originally published June 2019 on the HubWeek blog.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.