Anna Mains is the U.S. Brand Ambassador for Monkey Shoulder, the blended malt Scotch Whisky for which she travels the country inspiring bartenders, consumers and spirits enthusiasts alike. Anna inspires all she meets to play with their whisky and think outside of the box when it comes to crafting Scotch cocktails. Born and raised in Dallas, Anna represents a new generation of Scotch whisky fans; a generation that takes an unconventional and not-so-stuffy approach to the storied liquid and enjoys mixing it up with playful experiences and cocktails.
Her 18 plus years of experience in the hospitality industry has brought her all around the country and made her a leader in all things cocktails. Anna first fell in love with the art of crafting cocktails working as a bartender at a restaurant in Oklahoma City. She was inspired to open her own restaurant, which she did, followed by a bar shortly thereafter. Anna’s two properties opened the Oklahoma City community to new and exciting flavors, trends and experiences, and encouraged guests to expand their gastronomic horizons.
Like Monkey Shoulder, Anna isn’t afraid to disrupt the traditional ways of doing things if it means exposing people to new and exciting experiences and flavors. After selling her two establishments, Mains began working for Maker’s Mark Whisky. At Maker’s Mark, Anna continued her evolution in the spirits industry, meeting industry professionals and other spirits experts along the way. Anna joined the Monkey Shoulder family in March 2020 and leads the brand’s advocacy program, inspiring fellow bartenders along the way. When Anna isn’t at her house in Dallas, you can find her traveling the country, snapping the perfect mid-air bed jump pics for Instagram, or searching for the perfect monkey colada.
You can find Anna on Instagram @AnnaMains and Monkey Shoulder @MonkeyShoulder.
What would be your top three tips for building relationships with those influential accounts out there?
Anna Mains: You know, I came from a very small market in Oklahoma, and even when I started working for Makers in 2018, I didn’t know many people nationally. I had met some individuals during my time at Camp Runamok, but I didn’t have those big-name, long-term relationships that many ambassadors do in places like New York or LA. So, I had to put a lot of effort and intention into building relationships. It took time for me to understand what a genuine relationship was. We all know that as much as we would love to approach it like, “Hey, I like what you do, whether or not you use my product. I want to come and support anything and everything you do.” The reality is that our budgets come from companies that expect us to support relationships that align with product usage.
So, the number one thing, I’d say, is to get to know people before pushing for a relationship. By doing that, I mean spending time with them. I used to go and watch service at bars, especially the big and influential ones, several times. Even if they didn’t carry my brand, I would observe what people were ordering. I would talk to the bartenders and ask about their goals and what they consider important in defining their bar’s success. By asking these questions and genuinely listening to their answers, you can find out if your goals align with theirs.
The second thing, you must respect what they put into their concepts. We need to remember that any relationship is a two-way street. Sometimes, I wouldn’t pursue a relationship with a bar if they didn’t appreciate the spirit we offer or if it didn’t seem like a natural fit for their program I always advise our sales team not to be pushy with suggestions like, “Why don’t you just put this product in this cocktail?” because to many bartenders and beverage directors, their cocktails are like their children. Treating their creations with respect is crucial. Just like you wouldn’t go into someone’s house and critique their interior decorating choices or parenting, you shouldn’t assume you know better than them in their craft. Whether you’re an ambassador or in a sales role, take the time to learn what’s important to the accounts before making any suggestions or building a business relationship. Get to know them on a personal level by understanding what makes their business tick.
Third tip: I’ve found that most people who own bars now and who are leaders, mentorship is important to them, it’s not just “oh, I want to do something with you because your name is going to help me,” it’s truly putting in that extra work and effort and showing up to say I’m invested in you and your people long-term. We tend to put blinders on. There’s always maybe 5 names that are at the top of everybody’s list of the top bars or bartenders in the U.S., so everybody tends to want to latch on when everybody’s at the top. To me – and again, this is the part that takes a lot of time and investment – when you’re sitting at these bars and you’re getting to know the bartenders, I always say ask about the next generation, like who are these bartenders who are hungry and are showing they want to learn more, and want to be involved and want to go on these experiences, they will be the rockstars of tomorrow.
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What are some common mistakes or pitfalls that you need to avoid when working with these accounts?
Anna Mains: I would say one common mistake is anytime someone tries to act like they know what’s best for someone else’s business, it generally isn’t well received. That’s not to say that there aren’t instances when you may know and think, “been there, done that, and I wish I could convince you to do this because I know what will happen.” But again, it’s that respect.
I don’t know if it’s so much of a pitfall. The problem is, we have a big disconnect in a lot of companies, and this is more of, I would say, a warning or maybe advice for companies as a whole. You have brand managers, marketing leaders, and commercial sales executives who work in an office and they get data, and they think that they understand the industry. Then you have people like your on-premise salespeople or your ambassadors, especially ambassadors, who are very inundated into the industry. In my opinion, what makes our industry so different from others is that bartending at a top-level bar is its own subculture. All of us have probably committed to choosing a career that is off the beaten path, and it takes a lot of dedication and weird hours.
And sometimes, I think people forget that the reason they are successful is that hospitality is based around how you make people feel, the relationships that you build, and connecting with people. I’m not saying that we aren’t businesses, by all means, if it doesn’t make financial sense, nobody is going to say, “Well, but I really liked this person.” It has to be a balance, but I think that keeping genuine, intentional connections at the top of importance helps build a healthier industry. Also, remembering this has to be a sustainable business for our suppliers and for the bars, and the only way to do that is to choose relationships that work for both.
With that being said, let’s say that you’ve built that relationship, and they’re carrying your product. How do you keep it on their shelf? How do you keep it on their menu?
Anna Mains: I think that is where I would say, take the time to think about, again, have you done that work upfront? Do you know what’s important, what makes them tick? Just like anything else, just like if you’re married or in a relationship, you have to everyday decide that you want to put effort into that relationship. And I think it’s the same way with bars and products. While, again, there are people that I have actually formed true friendships through this industry with whom I genuinely care about, whether or not they pour Monkey Shoulder or not. That’s not the type of relationships we’re talking about here. At the end of the day, we all have a job to do, and we’re trying to find things that mutually benefit everybody. So, sometimes, reminding yourself that this is not just a friend you can call every once in a while and say, “Hey, how’s it going? I was just thinking about you the other day, haven’t heard from you. I’m just wanting to catch up.” That’s not the type of friendship this can be. You have to actively make sure that you are doing what it takes to keep that relationship because, just like any relationship, if you don’t put the effort into it, it’s not going to last.
Do you maintain the relationship by in-person visits? Or do you also use something like social media to stay in contact?
Anna Mains: It’s just me in most of the U.S., so there are a lot of relationships that I would have liked to grow that I’ve not had the chance to, just because I physically can’t have that in-person experience all the time. Social media definitely helps a lot. But where I would also give the biggest suggestion is that most companies and brands will have an on-premise specialist or an on-premise sales team, or whether it’s through your distributor partners. I know I just did some stuff with our Breakthru ATS in Miami where I did 99% of the heavy lifting on it. But making sure that you always include them along the way and build that relationship so that they can feel ownership of it as well, especially if you’re in a national role or if you’re in a role where it’s the entire East Coast or something, and there’s no possible way that you can physically be there as much as needed. Making sure that you loop in the commercial team and the supplier – anybody else that can help you make sure that that relationship is taken care of is most important.
I’ve had more people tell me that they’re like, “I’ve gotten opportunities because you just answer your texts and emails.” It seems so simple, but apparently, it’s not that simple because they said that there are a lot of brands or suppliers that will text them, and then they won’t hear from them for a couple of weeks. Some of us now have calls every morning at 8 or 9 am. So I’m not always out until 4 am, but we have to remember that a lot of the people that we are taking care of, the bartenders, they don’t get home until 5 am. If they’re texting you at 9 pm or they’re texting at whatever time – you have to also know that that’s their schedule, and you have to make yourself available to them.
In terms of like staying updated on like emerging trends or generating new fresh ideas, how are some of the ways that you go about that?
Anna Mains: When you’re in a city visiting several cocktail bars a night so that you can watch and listen to what people in those cities are doing. I’ve seen bars doing things in small markets that I’ve taken back to my friends in New York. Make sure you share those observations and contribute as a creative partner. I usually will try to see trends, and if I really like something, I’ll think of a bar that I think it could work at. Knowing how busy bar operators and bartenders are, I’ll reach out to say, “hey, here’s this idea. I think it would be cool, and I could help execute it in this way.”
We’re so lucky we get to travel a lot as ambassadors and I think part of the responsibility is to make sure that we document and share all the knowledge that we get to see along the way. For me, in terms of trade engagement programs, we’re kicking off Monkey Business in August. We try to bring valuable resources to the table, allowing the trade to get information from global sources. For example, in London, this person is doing something innovative with freezing or shifting flavors, and this is what’s been popular there.
What are some strategies that you use for fostering brand loyalty?
Anna Mains: I think making sure that you’re always the first response, and that they know they can rely on you is, I think, the number one most important thing. I will always try to communicate with the bar, and if the relationship went well, I make sure to check in with the commercial team pretty consistently to say, “Hey, just wanted to alert you that they might be coming into stock issues on this product.” Because I know that they may not talk to that person on a day-to-day basis as much as I do. Giving them a heads up on potential stock shortages or price increases or any special promotions is crucial to helping with their operations. I think the worst thing you can do is to get people to fall in love with your product and then not be there to support them when they encounter issues.
As suppliers, we always have different calendars, but there might be times where things are on special, so being the kind of ears to the ground from our side for your accounts helps ensure that they can continue to know that not only will you always have their product in supply, but you’ll also make sure that it stays competitive as far as pricing. I try to always come up with fresh ideas, like we just talked about, because we know how fickle customers are, and they always need something new and exciting to keep their interest. So, trying to be that partner that they know they can rely on whether they have a crazy idea or they need help brainstorming ideas to keep their business top of mind to their guests.
(Note: The transcript has been revised for grammar and clarity while preserving the original content.)