It’s not a big holiday in Mexico, and if you ask the majority of gringos what exactly Cinco de Mayo celebrates, they’d be hard pressed to tell you. But in terms of bar and restaurant celebrations, the holiday ranks right up there with that other ethnic landmark, St. Patrick’s Day, for perking up sales and creating a party atmosphere. If everyone is Irish on March 17, then lots of people are turning Mexican on May 5.
Una Fiesta Grande
Tequila and beer companies have been riding the tide of Cinco de Mayo popularity for a decade now, helping restaurateurs and bars promote a party with posters, give-aways, table tents and menu tip-ons. Sales of tequila and Mexican beer jump during the holiday period, which can last as few as one or two days or can expand to a month long celebration in some venues. (Cinco is not just big for beer and tequila sales; It’s also the most important day in the year for avocado usage. The California Avocado Commission reports that Americans will eat 17 million pounds of avocadoes 34 million that is on May 5.
At Chicago’s Mambo Grill, where the Mamborita is a popular drink throughout the year, owner Susan Frasca decided to capitalize on the beverage to promote Cinco de Mayo. At the top of the Mambo Grill menu is an illustration of a Latin woman called Mambo Rita. “I said last year that we needed to find the real Rita. We conducted an official search for Mambo Rita, a sort of beauty contest, run from April 1 through April 30 asking candidates to submit a photo and an essay,” says Frasca.
Twenty-five contestants entered and the field was narrowed to five finalists. The five were announced on May 1 and brought to the restaurant on May 5 to be introduced to a crowd gathered at the restaurant to vote on the winner. The new Mambo Rita, whose real name is Mimi, received $500 in cash and $500 in gift certificates and the privilege of serving as the Mambo Rita spokesperson for a year. Other finalists were given a bottle of tequila, martini glasses and t-shirts.
“It turned into a week-long celebration since we had a party to announce the five finalists in addition to the actual day,” says Frasca. “We have always held Cinco de Mayo parties, but last year our sales were double what they were in the past. It was utter pandemonium,” she adds. In addition, the month-long lead-up in April helped pump up sales during a month which is usually slow.
The Mamborita margaritas, always on the menu, ran for half price ($3 as opposed to the normal $6), as did the Mambojito, a drink made with rum, sugar cane and ground mint leaf. All Mexican bottled beers (Corona, Dos Equis and Bohemia the biggest sellers) were priced at $3 versus the regular $4 to $4.50 price tag. The Chicago Beverage Company, Mambo Grill’s local purveyor, provided the giveaways. Reigning Mambo Rita Mimi soon will crown the 2002 Mambo Rita.
Cooking With Tequila
Back in 1976, Mexican food was not widely popular east of the Mississippi and few non-Mexicans knew much about Cinco de Mayo. That was the year Chi-Chi’s Mexican chain introduced Mexican food to a whole new population. “We have a couple of generations of patrons who have been celebrating Cinco de Mayo with us for a couple of decades. The holiday is now becoming more entrenched in communities. Our whole goal is for people to have a good time, to what we call ‘salsabrate’ with us,” says Chi-Chi’s VP public and media relations Robert Carl.
This year, Chi-Chi’s will be launching a new entree during Cinco de Mayo, Flaming Fajitas. People are used to seeing fajitas served on sizzling platters, but the chain decided to take it one step further and bring the fajitas to the table flamed with tequila. “We have been training servers in the tableside service so that they are ready for the promotion.
Along with the Flaming Fajitas will come Margarita and imported beer specials and in some markets, special parties and/or party tents,” adds Carl. The promotion was introduced in March in TV and radio ads and will run through May and beyond. The food and drink specials will all fly under the banner of Cinco Central. Sundays specials will be geared to families and children. Increased sales have always resulted from Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and Carl expects the same this year. “It’s all a balance of providing good beverages, good food and having people celebrate with us,” he says.
Agave In Mashland
In Louisville, Kentucky where the locals are just discovering real Mexican food and a spirit other than bourbon, Anthony Lamas, chef-owner of Jicama, sees his role as showing non-Latinos what a good Mexican fiesta is all about. Half Puerto Rican and half Mexican, he grew up in California where the Hispanic population is large. “I grew up with big celebration around Cinco de Mayo and always look forward to it. What I want to do here is show people how inspired Mexican food can be,” Lamas says.
At Jicama, he put together a tequila tasting menu, incorporating tequila in his cooking along with Mexican beverages to match for $19.95 per person. The first course is a Mexican Baja lobster ceviche made with Patron 100 percent agave tequila, lobster, yellow grapefruit and tomatillos served with a Dos Equis or Negro Modelo beer. Second course is a heart of palm and jicama salad with a tequila-passion fruit vinaigrette. Third course is tequila-spiked shrimp marinated in green onion, chili and Jose Cuervo tequila with a tequila beurre blanc served with a sweet corn salsa over rice with a Margarita to wash it down. And dessert will be a flan with a tequila sauce.
“I think tequila works well in cooking. My restaurant has been open for one and a half years and I have been in Louisville for seven years. I’ve learned a lot about Southern food and cooking with bourbon. But I’m the Latin man in Louisville, so I like to cooking with tequila,” he says. Lamas will promote his special Cinco de Mayo tequila menu through the local media and also as part of his monthly segment on the local Fox News in the Morning show.
CINCO GOES GRINGO
While Mexican restaurants, both chains and independents, capitalize on this popular holiday, non-Mexican restaurants benefit from promoting it too. Many college town restaurants hold Cinco de Mayo drink specials along with Mexican food appetizer buffets or menus.
One 8-unit restaurant chain headquartered in Chicago’s Oak Park suburb, Flat Top Grill, specializing in cooked-to-order Asian stir-fry, is even celebrating Cinco de Mayo, with several Margarita drink specials. The Mango Tango Margarita made with fresh chilled chunks of mango, Torino Mango Frusia and Chinaco tequila, and their regular Margaritas sell for half price ($3) for the days surrounding Cinco de Mayo. The Mango Tango Margarita and the regular Margarita are part of Flat Top Grill’s new drink program showcased on their chalkboard.
“We sent out email messages and post cards to the15,000 people on our frequent customer list,” says Dave Hoemann, senior VP development for the company. Even though the company is basically an Asian concept, Cinco de Mayo works for them as a short term promotion. The new drink program is designed to keep regulars coming in for special promotions. A newsletter is also sent out to their mailing list where promotions also are advertised.
In towns with large Hispanic populations, the Cinco de Mayo celebrations have become big fiestas for the Mexican and non-Mexican populations alike. Denver’s first Cinco de Mayo-Celebrate Culture Festival showcasing Mexican heritage was held in 1988 in the evolving neighborhood on Santa Fe Street. By 1995 the festival had outgrown its neighborhood location and was moved to Denver’s Civic Center Park. Today it is touted as the largest outdoor Cinco de Mayo celebration in the US, attracting a two-day attendance of 450,000 people and has become a major tourism event.
In Chicago, celebrations are held in Hispanic neighborhoods, but also in many non-Hispanic areas of the city. Several years ago, a Cinco de Mayo fiesta was held in Chicago’s trendy River North neighborhood co-sponsored by Jose Cuervo and the local rock and roll radio station WXRT. The Checker Taxicab Company also partnered the event to keep people from drinking and driving.
Mexican or gringo, bring on the Mariachi band, string up a pinata, make a mess of guacamole and have plenty of Mexican beer and creative margaritas on hand. A fiesta is just what you need to pump up late spring sales.
Nancy Backas celebrates Cinco in Chicago.
Cinco de Mayo (May fifth) celebrates the Mexican display of courage and triumph against the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Even though it took another five years for the Mexicans to finally defeat the French and drive them out of the country, this was a significant turning point. The poorly trained and equipped Mexican force of 2,000, aided by civilians and Zacapoaxatla Indians, came up against and thwarted 6,000 well-trained French troops on that fateful May day. Mexican Americans have adopted the holiday as a way of celebrating their heritage. But what started out as ethnic pride in cities where Mexicans settled, along the borders in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, has now become a nationwide excuse for a fiesta. With celebrations in cities like Richmond, Virginia and Dover, Delaware, Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky where the Mexican populations are relatively small, it’s clear the holiday has transcended its ethnic roots. NB
Promoting A Fiesta To Remeber
HOSTING YOUR OWN CINCO DE MAYO CELEBRATION CAN BE A CHALLENGE, SO REMEMBER THESE SIMPLE RULES:
Don’t forget the training. Make sure servers know the ins and outs of the Cinco de Mayo promotion a few weeks in advance of the holiday.
Provide servers with history of the holiday and knowledge of Mexican drink, food and traditions.
For maximum benefit, make sure to promote the holiday in local media and to your regular customers.
For maximum benefit, run the promotion for at least five days.
Consider running Cinco de Mayo specials once a week the month prior to the holiday and think of running the specials throughout the month of May.
Use Mexican colors of red, green and white to accent menus, beverage lists and signage.
Use Mexican props such as brightly colored large flowers, pinatas and strung Mexican paper cut-outs.
Have servers wear colorful aprons, sombreros, chili pepper shirts or vests or brightly colored t-shirts.
Hire a mariachi band, folklorico dance troupe or Spanish guitar player to play live music, or obtain some good recorded music to provide musical atmosphere.
Partner with liquor and beer companies, local radio stations, local companies to provide premium give-aways for party guests such as t-shirts, ball caps, take-home glasses.
Hold dance contests, jalape