The L-Suite

Angie Belin Is One of the Only Women Bar Owners in South LA — & She Takes Zero Sh*t

The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latine professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we’re talking with Novacane bar own Angie Belin about demanding respect in a male-dominated industry, setting work boundaries, keeping an all-women staff safe, and more.
From a very young age, Angie Belin knew she wanted to be her own boss. When she accompanied her father to the bar he owned, she was in awe of how much respect he — and, by extension, she — received. She wanted in. Now, she’s one of the few Latina bar owners in the country.
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With few women like her in the business, simply knowing what she hoped to accomplish didn’t mean she knew the best path forward. In her 20s, when she felt stuck, she turned to her greatest teachers: her parents. Her mother, born in Mexico, and her father, who emigrated from Guatemala to California, are both business owners who learned everything they know by leaping into entrepreneurship.
“They didn’t go to business school or anything like that,” she tells Refinery29 Somos. “They just learned on their own, like how to get the permits, how to get your alcohol license. It was like my mom went to business school because of all the stuff that she knows.”
Armed with their advice and a plan — including going to bartending school, digging into other bars in the area, and securing funding through a loan — Belin launched Novacane, a Huntington Park bar that she describes as “Frank Ocean meets Bad Bunny” in 2017, just after her 27th birthday. 
The Frank Ocean inspiration is front and center. The name of the bar, as well as a few of her drinks — Pink Matter (whiskey, watermelon, grenadine, lemon juice, and a sprinkle of hibiscus) and Rich Kids (Ciroc apple, Jack Daniel’s apple whiskey, spicy apple puree, cinnamon, and lemon juice) — derive from the artist’s discography. The Bad Bunny connection comes through in the music choices and the bar’s unyielding support of marginalized groups. 
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But above all else, Novacane is a place for her community. It’s a space that strives to make women and queer people feel safe, and uplifts Latine creatives. The walls feature colorful murals of Selena, payasas, and the “smile now, cry later” faces by Latine artists like Lillipore and Mr B Baby. Inspired by LA Latine culture, Novacane feels familiar — but it’s also its own thing. Belin purposely wanted to build something that felt different from the paisa bars that she grew up frequenting.
“I wanted to do something for Huntington Park that they didn’t have,” she says. “I did my research, and there was absolutely nothing craft in this neighborhood. There was nothing [for] people to go to and feel like, ‘I’m home.’ All there was in this area [was] those types of [paisa] bars, and you don’t always feel welcome.”
Initially, her dad didn’t understand her vision, but as Novacane has grown, he has come around. In fact, with the wide success of the bar, she was able to buy two more, which she describes as “mini, little Novacanes.”
While Belin has carved her own path and trusted her instincts, she has also built on the lessons she has learned from her parents. Altogether, this has helped her navigate the traditionally male-dominated industry. Now when she walks through Novacane, she’s the one who commands respect. 
We asked the bar owner about how she sets boundaries with her team, protects her all-women staff, and deals with criticism from people in the community who don't like to see women leading.
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Set work boundaries.
Belin launched Novacane while she was in her 20s. Knowing the frustrations of her generation, she created a family-like culture, where everyone gets along, enjoys each other’s company, and feels safe and relaxed. So every time a team member left, she took it hard, like she was parting ways with a cousin or BFF. “I would get attached to them,” she says. “I’d get very sentimental about it. I had to learn how to separate being a friend and a boss.” 
This separation started becoming necessary for other reasons as well. In Belin’s experience, when she’s too easy-going, some workers, unclear on where the lines of friend and employee cross, took advantage of her leadership style. As a result, she has had to affirm that she is a boss and, as such, she’s who sets the standards of professionalism at Novacane.
“I’m always gonna help my girls,” she says. “I’m always gonna be there for them, and I always want to be like that good, nice boss, but [also it’s about] learning how to be tough and not letting yourself be walked all over.” 
Protect your staff.
Part of being a good boss is ensuring that she can protect her all-women staff. As a woman herself, she has experienced her share of inappropriate behavior from industry folks and guests alike. She hasn’t always been taken seriously because of her high-femme aesthetic. “There have been a couple times where I want to go into the office and cry,” she says. “It was challenging; it just taught me how to stand my ground. You have to be really careful with how you approach things and how you do things. [You have to] be professional, but at the same time not let someone [disrespect] you. Once I overcame that, I just felt very unstoppable.” 
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Now, to protect herself and her team, she doesn’t hesitate to refuse people service, standing her ground despite what expletives may come her way. “I’m not gonna let you talk to me or my girls in a certain way,” she says. 
And the same goes for her customers. She has hired security guards who are very conscious of the ways women and queer folks face harassment and violence. “My security guards are very on top of that, making sure that everyone feels comfortable and respected,” she says. “It’s really important to me because the moment that happens, you’re out the door.” 
There is no task that is too small.
From her dad, Belin learned that true leaders don’t just dictate; they also roll up their sleeves. 
“My dad was very hands-on, always leading by example,” she says. 
From the bunk beds he set up in his office for his children, Belin got to see how he worked just as hard as his employees. Today, he is in his 60s and continues to play an active role in his bar. His leadership style has been inspirational to her. 
“When people tell me, ‘Oh, you’re the owner. You’re the boss. How come you’re doing everything? Why are you working so hard? You should be kicking back,’ I’m like, ‘No, that’s not how it works,’” she says. “When you really care about what you do, it’s fun. I like it.” 
Focus on your success.
As a high-femme Latina bar owner, one who has created a space that centers women and queer communities, Belin has pushed past tradition and defied gender and cultural expectations — and she has been met with resistance. 
On any given day, she can receive criticism for everything from her song choices (Novacane doesn’t play banda because it’s what all the dive bars nearby play) to her identity. “[I’ve had] someone tell me I’m not Mexican enough to be having the type of bar that I have,” she says. “That was a very hardcore Latino old-school man who told me that.”
Instead of letting these sentiments ruin her day, she focuses on all of the things that she is doing right. “I’ve had my bar for six years,” she says. “I’m obviously making people happy to come here.” 
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