Around Town: Caitlin Corcoran
In her new series, Food Editor Grace Pritchett shares a drink or two and a bite to eat with some of KC’s most prominent food personalities– and shares the insights and good times with us!
Caitlin Corcoran started in the coffee industry, spending 10 years diving into syrups, barista competitions, and signature flavors, before making the switch to the bartending world. This switch sparked an interest in the wine and alcohol industries. Her early education and ambition led her to where she is now as the Managing Partner of Ça Va, a grower champagne and wine bar in Westport that focuses on educating the masses and providing champagne for the people. If you don’t know Caitlin, then you clearly haven’t had enough glasses of wine.
Caitlin loves art, French pastries, and eating with her hands, but more importantly, she loves connecting with her community and using her voice and platform to help others. I sat down with Caitlin at two of her favorite restaurants in town, KC Pinoy and POI-O, to talk coffee, public policy, and what she sees for the future of her industry.
What made you want to get into the restaurant/hospitality industry?
I've wanted to own a restaurant and be in the restaurant industry since I was a kid. My mom was a pastry chef when I was growing up, so some of my earliest memories are of being in the kitchen with her. But my parents were hesitant about me being in the industry. Being driven and intelligent, they wanted “more for me” than the restaurant life. Especially since my mom was familiar with the boys club that was and still is a majority of kitchen and restaurant culture.
I started in the industry working in specialty coffee when I was 15 at Latte Land on the Plaza as a way to work with my friends after school and get out of going to Sunday mass.
So you're from Kansas City?
Yes, I'm from Kansas City. Born and bred. I went to St. Teresa's for high school. I spent my weekends going to the Nelson-Atkins, book club at Reading Reptile (R.I.P.), and taking ballet classes at State Ballet, now Kansas City Ballet. My parents met in Westport, actually catty-corner to where Ça Va is now.
It's like every part of your life brought you to where you are now!
Exactly. So I was working at Latte Land on the Plaza and I stayed in coffee for a while. I graduated from school around the time of the economy crashing, so jobs were hard to come by and it was common for people to stay in the restaurant world for longer.
I dove further into the specialty coffee world and competed nationally four different times and did all these barista competitions. I figured out that I really loved drink creation and making signature drinks and flavors and things like that. I helped to spearhead the syrups program at Parisi and that was the first coffee shop in town to make their own syrups.
Where did you get the idea for that?
My manager at the time, Kate Blackmon (now at Messenger Coffee), and I went to all these barista competitions so we were able to see what baristas around the country were doing. And I thought, why are all coffee shops buying shit that is not good for the environment, that doesn't taste good, and honestly, is not cost effective. I mean, simple syrup is sugar and water. Why aren't more people making it? So we started going down that rabbit hole and started a few syrup flavors at Parisi.
Because of that background, I approached all these bars when I wanted to leave coffee. I was hired as bar prep at Port Fonda, a bartender at Kill Devil, and a server at Manifesto all in the same week. So I quit coffee and worked all three jobs.
And didn’t sleep.
I didn't have a day off for probably three years.
What made you stay in Kansas City? And did you ever think about moving?
Oh, definitely. I almost moved to New York twice. Before I was offered the job at Ça Va, I was grappling with moving cities. There just weren't any other places in town that I wanted to work and I thought I wasn't ready to open my own place. Ultimately, I stayed in Kansas City, but I never thought I was going to stay here when I was growing up. I feel like this city has grown and developed in a really beautiful way. The city's commitment to the creative scene has been really amazing.
And the city is growing in ways that interest you and pertain to what you're doing in your life. It's not as bustling as New York or LA, but still interesting.
But I think that's the beauty of Kansas City– because if I was in a larger metro, it would be easy to fall into my niche of just knowing cocktail people or wine people. This is so cheesy, but I think Kansas City is a crossroads of creativity and lends itself for collaboration. Some of my closest friends are jazz musicians and singers and artists. We're able to have conversations that inspire me and my restaurant. I think that's something beautiful about Kansas City.
What do you love about the restaurants you picked?
For KC Pinoy, I always try to find places that are woman-owned and woman of color-owned. I think it's important to support businesses that you align with on a political level and a personal level. I really like Chrissy and how she runs a business. I think it's great that her business cards say "Head Dishwasher" and not like, owner or something. I love her dishes and I could eat them every day. People get nervous about trying something new, and I think Chrissy's menu is super approachable. Also, I like spicy pork and eating with my hands.
I love what Carlos [Mortera] is doing with POI-O. I love The Bite, so I knew I would love this place when it opened. It's a good space, good veggie options. I like when a place doesn't have an expansive menu; they do a few things and they do those things really fucking well. I like his salsas too. When he started making the hot sauce at The Bite, I don't know if he knows this, but he would give me little sample bottles and I would put them in my toiletry bag when I would travel.
If you weren't in the restaurant industry, what would you be doing?
I think I would like to work in the public policy sector. I was originally going to be a political science major. I just got back from the chef's boot camp through the James Beard Foundation about using your voice and being an advocate. That reinvigorated me and helped me realize that's something I can still do even though I'm in this career.
Based on what you put out on social media, you're very involved in politics and you're very outspoken about what's going on in the world. How do you still protect your mental health while doing that?
I have a therapist, I have a psychiatrist, I get regular massages Recently, I started riding my bike a lot. I use it to commute and it's about six miles so I get some moving meditation. But I haven't always been great about that. I had to put myself into check recently and was like, I can't keep doing this. I was working like 80 hours a week.
And that's physically draining, that's emotionally draining.
And I was never able to just calm down or decompress. Working 80 hours a week in a restaurant, you are constantly having to be on for the public. I think it's common among creatives to just hustle and work, work, work but you need to have your checklist. Like, have you had water today? Have you eaten three meals? Have you taken a shower? And have you stretched? Those are my things, but for the past ten years, I wasn't doing those things on a regular basis. There was no work-life “balance”. This past year I’ve started to re-prioritize myself and establish boundaries that support “balance” in my life. I'm really lucky to have such a good team at Ça Va so I can step away if I need to.
You're so good about bringing to light issues or people that need attention given to them but that can be so draining on someone.
Oh, for sure but being a business owner, I have the privilege of having a platform. I am compelled to use it to help create a more equitable society.
What kind of future do you want for the industry?
Oof. I would like a future where there is equity for everyone involved. I would like it if workers got paid what they are worth. I do think it's a tricky conversation, I don't have the answer for it, but I think we can work towards ending gratuity, as it’s rooted in racism and misogyny. And I want to see more representation throughout management in restaurants. This industry has been dominated by men, specifically white men for too long. In order to make real change, we need to have diversity (gender, race, sexual orientation) at the management and ownership levels. As found in a report by Restaurant Opportunities Center, “52% of all restaurant workers are women, but 66% of tipped workers are women, the lower minimum wage for tipped workers is essentially creating legalized gender inequity in the restaurant industry.”
What do you see for the future of Ça Va?
I hope this idea of radical hospitality spreads. I've noticed a lot of business owners and chefs in my generation are working towards doing more than just owning a restaurant to help their community.
I also want to see more of this idea that you can have excellent service and it doesn't have to be stuffy or pretentious and it shouldn't make you feel stupid. A lot of people get intimidated by wine because they don't want to look like they don't know something in front of their date or their friends. I was really lucky to have my mom introduce me to talking about flavors, food, and beverages from a young age. My earliest memory is being two or three and tasting different kinds of apples in my mom's kitchen and talking about what they tasted like. I know that's a different experience than most people have, but I don't want to make anyone feel awkward about talking about beverages or food when they come to Ça Va.