Everyone knows, anecdotally, that Hispanics of all sorts make up a growing portion of the country’s population, but real numbers are astonishing: In 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that America’s Hispanic population (South Americans, Central Americans and Caribbeaners) grew by 13 percent to 39.9 million people, making it the fastest growing segment and largest minority group in our culture.
These numbers equate to a buying power of more than $500 billion a year. With that in mind, then, it’s no surprise that Latin-based restaurants, and those that depend on Latin populations, are proliferating. All over the country, things are heating up with a tremendous growth spurt in Colombian, Mexican, Peruvian, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian and Argentinean eateries. As important, dishes once seen only in ethnic restaurants have crossed over to non-traditional restaurants, and along with them have come the wines, beers and spirits of the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
As the dining public tries out new types of cuisine, whether it is Brazilian churrasco or Peruvian ceviche, they’re likely to forego the usual Martini and inquire about traditional South American beverages.
“Hispanics make every excuse to celebrate,” said Enrique Gil, president and creative director of Ethnic Marketing Group, Inc. (EMG), a Hispanic advertising and promotions agency in Los Angeles. “Drinks have become very popular because of the overall trend,” said Gil. “First there was Hispanic music and culture, and now there’s south of the border food.”
FROM ALL OVER
Ralph Ortiz, director of beverage development for Real Mex Restaurants, the largest full-service casual dining Mexican restaurant chain operator in the U.S., said that the multi-cultural Hispanic revolution is having different effects, depending on the immigration trends in different regions of the U.S. On the West Coast, he says, tequila has become the mainstay, reflecting an enormous Mexican and Central American population, while on the East Coast, the influence of people from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other countries means rum is the hot commodity.
“Tequila is still the main driver of cocktails,” said Ortiz. But now, after years of growth in the tequila category and the proliferation of higher-end products, he sees more and more savvy customers asking for premium tequilas. “Sometimes they’ll even know more about them than the bartender. They’ll teach us about it,” he said. And instead of regular Margaritas made with mixto tequila, he said customers often ask for such 21st century derivatives as Mango Margaritas made with reposado tequila, for instance.
As one of the fastest growing spirits, the tequila industry is booming. “If a bartender is educated, he will ask you what kind of tequila you want,” said Valdemar Cantu, marketing director for Herradura tequila, based in San José del Refugio, Mexico. He said that the presence of tequila bars and tequila flights have helped the public become more educated.
The El Chico Cafe chain features a month-long promotion for Cinco de Mayo.
At Rosa Mexicano, an upscale Mexican restaurant with locations in New York City, Washington D.C., and Atlanta, Georgia, the drink menu includes three tequila flights (blanco, reposado and anejo), as well as the traditional tequila chaser Sangrita, a blend of orange juice, tomato juice and spices. “In Margaritas, they’re looking for something that gives it flavor,” said Cantu. Another trend he’s seen is fine tequila being enjoyed after dinner, like brandy.
Other operators are honing their reputations for authentic Mexican flavors by hosting tequila and Margarita classes. For the second year running, Andale restaurant in Washington, D.C. has called on resident tequila expert Chris Cunningham to school customers (who sign up at $30 per class) on the ways of the blue agave and the Margarita, and the differences among various tequilas, both popular and obscure.
Even restaurants outside the more competitive city center markets have seen the wisdom of focusing on spirited promotions. This April, San Gabriel Mexican Café in Bannockburn, IL, in suburban Chicago, added a Herradura tequila dinner to its regularly scheduled events.
Anamaria Cesena, brand development manager for Jose Cuervo Tequila, based in Jalisco, Mexico, said a good tequila should be sipped and savored. “You don’t need lime and salt,” she said. “That will just kill the characteristics.” Instead, she suggests one or two ice cubes and a twist of orange peel instead of lime.
On the East Coast, where Ortiz sees more rum drinking, Mojitos continue to work their way into the spotlight. “Most folks feel safe with rum or vodka,” said Ortiz. “They’d rather experiment with one factor. They’ll try a new flavor with rum versus switching to tequila.
“Bringing real fruit into the mix yields profit and flavor,” said Ortiz. He contends that if you use real products, customers will be willing to invest more and experiment with their drink choices. As an example, he says it’s important to use fresh mint and herbs in Mojitos, so the drink exudes more aroma.
In a few short years, the Mojito has become one of the big drivers in the rum and flavored rum categories. “Mojitos are the most popular drink,” said Pablo Castro, owner of Selva Grill in Sarasota, Florida. “When [the customers] see the drink list, because of the theme of the restaurant, they have a tendency to order authentic drinks.”
That’s not to say that other cocktails aren’t as popular in Latin-themed restaurants. “Martinis are still strong,” said Ortiz. The trend of Cosmopolitans and Sour Apple Martinis hasn’t died yet. “People are looking for more flavor in their cocktails, but not necessarily sweet flavor,” said Ortiz. “They want to still be able to taste the spirit but with a flavor that doesn’t overpower it.”
To that end, Ortiz is currently experimenting with an avocado Pi