For years, Daniel May has been a driving force behind community celebrations in Kalamazoo, including a Juneteenth bar crawl that left an indelible mark on the city. Recognizing a significant void for People of Color in terms of safe and comfortable spaces, May took it upon himself to create one.
Dabney & Co., a chic cocktail lounge nestled in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo, pays tribute to the Black mixologists and service staff who, according to May, “built this industry.” John Dabney, a former enslaved man who invented the “hailstorm” mint julep, is one. Dabney amassed tips that allowed him to purchase both his and his wife’s freedom — an inspiring story that is honored through the words “liberation through spirits” displayed on Dabney & Co.’s front window.
“This is all thanks to the ancestors who are always with us,” May shared with Now Kalamazoo. “It’s astounding that only five generations removed from slavery, I am in a position to open a bar named after an enslaved individual who transformed heartache and horror into a thriving business.”
The combination of May’s talent and determination – combined with support from Northern Initiatives – enabled May to launch Dabney & Co. in 2022. He was meticulous in every aspect of the venture, from curating the drink menu to handpicking the staff.
“We aim to revolutionize the food and beverage industry,” May declared. A crucial aspect of this vision involves providing a livable wage in an industry notorious for worker exploitation. Dabney & Co.’s staff earn a base pay of $16 per hour, a stark contrast to the state’s minimum wage of $3.75 per hour for tipped workers. Additionally, a 20% gratuity is automatically included in each bill.
However, wages represent only one facet of May’s staffing approach. He envisions a team that mirrors the community’s diversity and works collectively towards Dabney & Co.’s success, rather than prioritizing sales.
Teo Gramatnikovski, a Kalamazoo College student hailing from the Republic of North Macedonia, wasn’t job hunting when he stumbled upon Dabney & Co. Entranced by the craft cocktails and inviting atmosphere, he recognized an opportunity to elevate his bartending expertise. “[Daniel] invited me to join the team, where he fosters our personal and professional growth,” he said.
Cook Miguelita Gonzalez was similarly captivated by the familial ambiance. “As soon as we sat down, everyone was sharing,” she recalled.
May extends this welcoming atmosphere to patrons and the Kalamazoo community at large. “Dabney & Co. embodies the work we’ve done over the years to create elevated spaces for People of Color and allies to unite and enjoy themselves,” he told MLive.
Transitioning from hosting community and cultural events to the ambitious two-year journey of realizing Dabney & Co. was an overwhelming feat for many, but May’s resolute persistence sets him apart. Skillfully balancing his full-time role as a Pricing Manager and pursuing an MBA in Business Analytics and Entrepreneurship, set for completion in May 2023, May dedicated himself to mastering interior and graphic design in order to imbue Dabney & Co. with the finest elements of each bar he and his wife had visited over the years. A compelling demonstration of his steadfast commitment, he conscientiously made a point to visit the bar twice daily for four consecutive months throughout its construction.