Rebels With a Cause

Rebels With a Cause

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Rebels With a Cause

Come as you are to Rebel Rebel, Lauren Friel’s no-rules Boston-area wine bar where the conversation matters just as much as what’s in the glass.

The Rebel Rebel team, from left to right: Molly O'Handley, Kyéra Sterling, Lauren Friel, and Marie-Louise Friedland.

BY CÉLINE BOSSART
PHOTOS BY LAUREN O'NEIL

Longtime hospitality vet Lauren Friel describes Rebel Rebel as a “no-rules natural wine bar” that “give[s] a f^%# — about wine, and about you.” Since its debut in Somerville, just outside Boston, nearly five years ago, the James Beard Foundation has recognized the 20-seat bar’s purpose-driven, by-the-glass and bottle selection with two consecutive nominations for Outstanding Wine Program—a testament to Friel’s knack for not only highlighting some of the most special and diverse producers of the moment, but also for curating the list (and the conversation) through a lens of community.

“I want every wine we work with to tell a story,” asserts Friel, explaining that a bottle’s narrative could relate to “a historic vineyard, a grape saved from extinction, a winemaker thriving against the odds, or a hybrid variety that might help us in the fight against climate change.”

Right now she's especially excited about Poggio Bbaranèllo, a tiny estate run by a queer couple in Lazio that, she explains, focuses on obscure varieties unique to their specific area south of Lago di Bolsena—"grapes that are rare even within Lazio."

Also on her radar is Chertok, a new estate run by a friend in Vermont's Champlain Valley that's focused on apple-grape co-ferments and hybrid varieties, "where so much of the wine world is starting to look in the face of climate change," she notes.

"It's important to me because supporting your people is important to me, but the wines are also really good," Friel explains, adding that "Max has made accessible pricing a huge part of his mission, which is also a huge part of our mission."

“I want every wine we work with to tell a story."

For Friel and her team, each featured wine’s fil rouge lies in its ability to answer the question of why. “Why does this matter? Why should we care? Otherwise, there's too much room for the ego of the person pouring it to take up space,” she opines, adding that at the end of the day, “We're just stewards—we should be humbled by these wines and the people crafting them.”

From a young age, Friel—who, in addition to Rebel Rebel, also owns natural wine bar Dear Annie and private event space Wild Child—was involved in hospitality, having spent much of her teen years in the industry. She became interested in natural wines around 2008 while working at Cambridge’s acclaimed Mediterranean eatery Oleana under renowned chef Ana Sortun, where supporting small local farmers and sustainable agriculture was a top priority.

It was in this female-led environment that Friel’s passion and career flourished, and Sortun’s farm-first philosophy became ingrained in her as she rose up the ranks to sommelier and, ultimately, to wine director. She later went on to work as wine director at another local Mediterranean boîte Sarma, then to Manhattan vegan hotspot Dirt Candy, all while taking on consulting and freelance wine writing gigs.

“We're just stewards—we should be humbled by these wines and the people crafting them.”

Despite nurturing environments like that of Oleana, over the years Friel witnessed nearly every corner of the wine business, and along with it came the toxicity and mistreatment that has too often been a part of the hospitality world.

According to Friel, restaurants and bars have historically been “an arena where it's safe to throw your weight around [and] work out our egos,” calling out the hierarchical systems of staffing, tip culture, and the language that many use. “[I]t just kind of…grosses me out.” From toxic kitchen leadership, unruly guests, or a broad lack of access to health insurance, hospitality pros deal with countless challenges every day, and Friel knew there had to be a better operating model.

Rebel Rebel’s 2018 debut was an answer not only to the industry’s deep-seated systemic issues, but also an ode to Friel's personal path to advocacy and the rejection of mistreatment. Doing so in the height of the Trump-era was especially salient, to put it lightly.

Rebel Rebel’s 2018 debut was an answer not only to the industry’s deep-seated systemic issues, but also an ode to Friel's personal path to advocacy.

“I had this team made up of non-dominant people who were openly and consistently under attack from our government leaders, and it just felt like, ‘F^%# this shit, not in my house.’ ” On top of the political turmoil, Friel had also walked away from a violent personal relationship and, according to her, coming out of it she felt laser-focused. She realized that what mattered most was the people around her, not just behind the bar, but out in the vineyards: “I just decided I was never going to do anything I didn’t believe in ever again. I didn’t care if people didn’t like it, and I still don’t.”

From day one, Rebel Rebel has operated on an intersectional feminist approach to business and hospitality, meaning that emphasis is placed, wherever applicable, on addressing the social inequities inflicted upon those who experience various levels of oppression—particularly where they overlap—and taking measures to ameliorate them. While companies offer similar assurances in today’s sociopolitical climate, Rebel Rebel sets an important precedent in terms of tangible action. This comes largely in the form of a five-point business plan that Friel and her team began to develop in 2020 “in response to the civil rights crisis occurring across the country and in our industry,” she explains, consisting of a collaborative, non-referral hiring policy that prioritizes BIPOC candidates, travel compensation for hired employees living outside of the bar’s neighborhood, providing paid or for-credit educational resources for local BIPOC high-school students interested in hospitality professions, and continuous wealth redistribution programming in support of community organizations that align with Rebel Rebel’s belief systems, to name a few.

“I just decided I was never going to do anything I didn’t believe in ever again. I didn’t care if people didn’t like it, and I still don’t.”

The act of championing sustainability and transparency across the board—from choice in wines to daily bar operations—only lays a stronger foundation for the Rebel Rebel team to advocate for a better future for everyone involved. The parallels between those who bring natural wines to life and those who pour it are endless—put simply, many on both sides face odds that are stacked against them, and we can’t separate the health of our planet and the health of our people, Friel explains. “It's simpler and more fun and more luxurious to ignore all of this, and spend an afternoon in a marble tasting room, but it isn't responsible.”

Though she’s not in it for the accolades, Friel’s efforts have not gone unrecognized. Beyond the James Beard nominations, she has been crowned Best Sommelier by Boston Magazine and Wine Enthusiast, and was named one of Imbibe magazine’s 75 People To Watch. Friel is also a Heritage Radio Network Hall of Fame inductee.

So, what does change ultimately look like for the hospitality space? Per Friel, we’d see the democratization of knowledge and resources, at the very least. “It shouldn't be so hard to learn from people in the industry who are more experienced than you are—we shouldn't be hoarding [these things].” Access to adequate sleep, fair wages, restorative workplace practices, therapy, community support, and the tools to engage in healthy conflict also top her list, but perhaps most important is the ability to simply be accepted for who we are. “I just feel like there's a lot of fear in the industry around changing the status quo, and [that] people are afraid they won't be relevant if they don't play by these old school rules anymore,” says Friel, recalling a time when conformity in fine dining was a rigid norm. “I have a place now where everyone can dress as they want, everyone can bring their full selves to the work environment, and we also provide excellent service and a phenomenal product. Things can be different and you can still be relevant without forcing people into this weird, old-fashioned box. And the only way to change that is to just change it.”

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