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‘Deal with God' gave San Antonio Cocktail Conference its start

The story behind the ‘party with purpose' that gives back to children

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In a preacher’s tiny office in a small Texas town, Mark Bohanan struck a deal with God: If the failing restaurant bearing his last name would turn around, then he would devote his life to charity.

“The restaurant was doing not so well in the first couple of years,” Bohanan said. “It was holding its own but it wasn’t really doing very well and I kind of made a deal with God in the preacher’s office down in Jourdanton, and right after that, it turned around.”

The deal

Bohanan said that turnaround was a sign that God had indeed listened to the him, and now it was his turn to keep his word.

Bohanan was prepared to start helping those less fortunate. As a chef, he thought would give back in a way that’s natural to him: with food.

He wanted to open a soup kitchen, but not the ordinary kind. His kitchen, he thought, would be stocked to the nines with ingredients that only the finest restaurants would carry. Bohanan thought that if the people he fed had to endure poverty or homelessness, at least they wouldn’t have to eat like they were poor or homeless.

But that’s not what was in store for Bohanan. Instead, he sincerely believes it was a divine intervention that steered Bohanan toward starting a charity that would be geared toward children, not adults.

The baby

At the same time the restaurant was in decline, Bohanan said he and his wife were also having trouble having a baby. They were frustrated and at the end of their ropes.

“The thing that is the most amazing is about the time the restaurant turned around, Marie and I had been trying to have a child and (it) didn’t work out,” Bohanan said. “So we decided we would stop.”

Then he got home from work one night and he found out she was pregnant.

“You can’t be pregnant!” Bohanan said he told her. “I canceled the insurance.”

The couple considered the turn of events in their lives a miracle. All of a sudden, the restaurant was doing well and his wife was expecting a child that they thought they couldn’t have.

“The restaurant had turned around after we had supposedly made a deal with God in the preacher’s office, which I know you’re not supposed to do,” Bohanan said. “My deal was, ‘Anything that you need me to do, I will do if you allow this restaurant to make it.’”

The charity

Shortly afterward, he said, Houston Street Charities, and the San Antonio Cocktail Conference, were born.

“I asked to be shown the way, and what better to show the way than to have a miracle child and start off in that direction of helping children in any capacity?” Bohanan said.

Initially, the proceeds from the San Antonio Cocktail Conference went toward HeartGift, which specializes in lifesaving heart surgeries for children around the world in places where medical treatment isn’t available or is limited.

Cathy Siegel, who leads Houston Street Charities, came to Bohanan from HeartGift.

“This year is our fifth year,” Siegel said. “It was a project that five years ago Bohanan’s staff took on and said, ‘Hey, let’s try this thing called a cocktail festival,’ and I always describe it to people as a bunch of friends held hands and jumped off a cliff and said, ‘I hope there’s water down there.’”

In the first four years of the conference, Siegel said more than $355,000 has been given away to causes for children. All of that comes from having a really good time, Siegel said.

“We’re celebrating craft cocktails. It’s about, yes, the craft cocktail itself, but (also) the wonderful music, and the food, and the beautiful venues -- all of those things together to make a craft cocktail experience,” she said.
“We’re doing a lot of good with the money,” Siegel said.

There are parties, tastings and classes for every taste, Siegel said. From opening night at the Majestic to seminars for the cocktail novice and beyond, Siegel said the conference has something for everyone.

Events include:

Jan. 14 at 7 p.m.: Opening night at the Majestic -, $85
Jan. 15 at 7 p.m.: Waldorf on the Prairie, St. Anthony Hotel, $120
Jan. 16 at 7 p.m.: Stroll on Houston Street, $85
Jan. 16 at 2 p.m.: Friendly Beer Break at the Friendly Spot, $20
Jan. 17 at 11:30 a.m.: Hair of the Dog that Bit Ya’ (or Brunch -: the Morning After), $50

The other party with a purpose

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Other gatherings include classes and discussions on cocktails, distilling, drinks in pop culture, and the influence of the late Sasha Petraske, an influential New York City-based bar owner and mixologist.

“All of that, (is) a very elevated, amazing experience and each year it grows and grows,” Siegel said. “People want to have fun and want to be a part of it, and I think it’s meaningful for people that it’s a party with purpose -- that at the end of all of that we’re able to give money.

This year, the San Antonio Cocktail Conference is supporting five children’s charities: ChildSafe, the Children’s Shelter, Clarity Child Guidance Center, Team Ability and Transplants for Children.

“We like knowing that we’re impacting children’s lives,” Siegel said. “It’s really important to all the people that are behind the scenes putting on this event.”

Kim Abernethy, president and CEO of ChildSafe, said the money not only helps accomplish her organization’s mission of providing care for child victims and survivors of abuse and neglect, but it creates awareness of what ChildSafe does.

ChildSafe is the only organization in Bexar County that focuses on that specific mission.

“(The money) makes a big difference,” Abernethy said. “For what we received last year, we served about 30 families. That’s pretty significant.”

In fact, Abernethy said ChildSafe was able to serve 16 percent more families over the previous year because of the funding from the cocktail conference. The client base keeps growing, Abernethy said, and additional funds are needed all the time.

To be chosen as a charity for support, ChildSafe submitted a proposal. ChildSafe has been a recipient multiple years. During its first year of funding, Abernethy said her organization received $50,000. Last year, the cocktail conference increased the number of charities to which it donated, and ChildSafe received $35,000. The more people who attend the cocktail conference, the higher the donations will be for the nonprofits on the receiving end.

“There are a lot of good nonprofits doing good work for children in this community,” Abernethy said.

Abernethy said she does not budget for the additional funds, but she said it goes a long way at ChildSafe to serve more children and families affected by abuse and neglect.

What’s really nice, Abernethy said, is that all the money -- the entire $355,000 over the past four years -- is made up of money from the community.

“People might not be thinking that, but as they’re going and having a good time at the cocktail conference, they’re helping children,” she said.

The history

The San Antonio Cocktail Conference has been named “one of the best” by Fodor’s Travel, and called “the future of cocktails” by Paste Magazine.

Attendees will find more than 80 different spirit brands to make up 200 cocktail combinations created by more than 100 bartenders.

The cocktail conference officially began in 2012 and has risen as one of the nation’s premier mixology events. Last year, more than 7,000 tickets were sold, according to event organizers, and the list of “cocktail luminaries” has included:

Michael Madrusan (The Everleigh, Melbourne), Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas, cocktail historian Philip Greene, Brian McCullough (The Standard Pour, Dallas), “Cocktail Guru” Jonathan Pogash and Tad Carducci (Tippling Bros.,NYC), among many others.

The mindset

Bohanan said he was worried that people would not take to a charity that’s based on drinking. He said in the beginning, he was afraid people would think the charity is a ploy or marketing scheme.

But the restaurateur said his employees bought into the concept from the first day and helped make the conference what it is, working regular shifts and then coming back to volunteer their time for free.

Bohanan said it’s trust from the community allows the conference to thrive.

“Most people will open their wallets and let the money flow as long as they know it’s really getting where it’s supposed to be,” Bohanan said. “We give back 100 percent of everything that we make to the chosen charities. That was the whole mindset behind it: believability and acceptance.”

Though, Bohanan’s own admission of a bar giving this much money to charity is kind of hard to believe -- but that’s exactly happens, he said.