The summer of 2020 was, for many of us, when reality hit the fan. With each slowly passing day, it was becoming clear that the “return to normal life” we’d dreamed about in spring was not going to happen, at least not this year. Many of us dreamed up projects—novels, sweaters, loaves of bread—that we eventually abandoned in favor of couchbound doomscrolling.
But furloughed Atlanta bartender Keyatta Mincey-Parker followed through on her idea, and, in the process, she offered a much-needed relief valve for beleaguered hospitality workers. Her vision and hard work meant that, during a horrific summer, A Sip of Paradise bartenders’ community garden became a place to be outside, take in some deep breaths, and tend one’s own little plot of nature.
The garden promotes itself as “a healthy and safe garden space for bartenders to recharge their creativity, minds and themselves.” Mincey-Parker, the founder and executive director, says, “Our vision is for bartenders to grow food, herbs and flowers for themselves and their families to help transform their wellness and happiness.”
A Sip of Paradise, now a 501(c)(3) organization, began with what Mincey-Parker calls “crackpot idea to just play in the dirt with my friends.” Now, with the completion of its first successful growing season, she has an opportunity to look back at her decades-long hospitality career and to wonder if, all along, it was leading her to this point.
“I came to the United States when I was 12 years old,” says Mincey-Parker. “We’d lived in Liberia all my life—my dad was Liberian and my mom is from LaGrange, Georgia in the United States. We fled here during the Civil War in 1990, and I’ve never been able to make a trip back.”
The transition was tough in many ways: “I had to take seventh grade all over again, I had an accent, and I didn’t relax my hair like the other girls did,” she says. Then there was the issue of race. She had come of age in a single-race society: “Our president was Black, my banker was Black, my doctor was Black,” she recalls. “That’s just the way life was.” Suddenly she was living in the American South, with hundreds of years of a difficult national history that informed every person’s attitude and outlook about race.
“As I look around at what’s happening now, I think I learned at a pretty young age how to deal with a shock that changes your whole life. And I learned how you can refuse to allow it to become a distraction. It made me much tougher.”
She started working in the hospitality industry when she was 16, first as a hostess. Eventually she held a number of FOH jobs, and even worked an ill-fated stint as a fry cook (“I was terrible. It was too hot back there”). She began working as a bartender after the birth of her first child in 2002. She’s widely considered to be one of Atlanta’s top mixologists, and her career includes long runs at downtown Atlanta’s Glenn Hotel and most recently at Bon Ton, from which she remains furloughed.
Mincey-Parker made an even bigger name for herself in the bartending scene, when, in February 2020, she was a finalist in Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition. (Her entry was Eve’s Pot Liquor, a mix of green apple juice, collard green juice, and gin, intended as an homage to her Southern U.S. and African roots.) Along with other finalists, she spent a week in London touring the Bombay Sapphire distillery, visiting other mixologists and strolling through the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. All finalists were required to prepare plans for a “creative outlet” project. Mincey-Parker knew right away that her plan would be for a community garden.
“Gardening is such an important part of Liberian women’s culture,” she says. “I remember gardening with my grandmother when I was a young girl.”
When she placed third in the bartending competition, she still moved forward with her community garden idea. She had just finished clearing away ground on a donated plot of land in the East Atlanta Village neighborhood when COVID hit and the hospitality industry shut down. With so many members of her industry furloughed, she suddenly had lots of extra helpers who were out of work, restless, and ready to help make A Sip of Paradise a success. They laid out 36 garden plots, offered them up at a nominal fee to friends in the industry, and got ready to grow.
“I’m exceptionally impressed that she turned a loss in the competition into a win for her community,” says Francine Cohen, editor-in-chief at Inside F&B. “Keyatta felt so strongly about this need, and she had such a great vision, so she went ahead and created it. She’s been admirable and selfless not just in supporting a community, but in building a community, too.”
Even as she was helping to shepherd such a hopeful project into existence, Mincey-Parker faced the reality of the times in which we live. “My insurance agent told me I ought to consider getting terrorist insurance,” she recalls. “She said, ‘You’re a Black woman—you never know who might hear about this and decide to come and destroy it.’ When I looked shocked, her response was, ‘People suck.’” Mincey-Parker bought the additional insurance.
Despite that dire warning, the community has been very welcoming to the gardeners. “One of the neighbors built a bar from the fence that connects us,” she says. “They hired my husband, a painter, to paint the fence, too. And people stop by all the time to say, ‘Thank you for adding beauty to the neighborhood.’”
Fellow gardeners amazed her with their creativity and skill. “We harvested tons of tomatoes, basil, and actually a lot of peppers, which came in late,” she says. “Someone even grew a pineapple just by cutting off the top, sticking it in the ground, and tending to it. One of the bartenders was also a painter, and she grew flowers, then steeped the petals to make watercolor paint.”
Some of the bartenders had never gardened before, but that didn’t seem to stop them. Says Mincey-Parker, “Jasmine Izzy Jackson had received a plot as a gift. She told me, ‘I’ve never done this before,’ but I think she ended up having the most productive plot in the garden. She gave away so many vegetables, we couldn’t believe it.”
Mincey-Parker says the garden gave people a chance to “do stuff that felt good,” and she was amazed to see the other creative ways people used the space. They brought music and danced as they gardened. They carted along a six-pack, a lawn chair, and a book, and plopped themselves in the middle of their plot. “Sometimes they’d tell me, ‘I just had to get out of the house, I had to have somewhere to go,’” she says. Eventually, the garden began hosting socially distanced yoga and meditation classes, with plans to do more events in the less socially distanced future.
This winter, Mincey-Parker has been meeting with her board of directors and with potential brand sponsors, hoping to create an even better experience in 2021. She’s added two staff members: Rori Robinson, director of gardening and development, and Stephanie Renee Sapotu, director of registration and community affairs.
“We’re asking brands to buy plots so we can gift them,” says Mincey-Parker. “We think it’s a great concept for them to support bartenders in a creative way.” She’s also hoping that, somehow, A Sip of Paradise will one day have its very own building with adjacent garden space. “I’m just putting that dream out there into the universe,” she says.
She hopes to see the concept move across the country and around the world. “Every city should have a bartenders’ garden. And everyone should know that, no matter what’s happening in the world or what’s happening around you, there’s always a way to pivot.”