More than 185,000 margaritas were consumed per hour by Americans in 2008 according to Brown-Foreman, one of the nation's largest spirit suppliers. That makes the margarita the most popular cocktail in the United States. The man most credited for this phenomenon is restaurateur/entrepreneur Mariano Martinez of Dallas, Texas.
May 11, 2011, will be the 40th anniversary of his invention of the frozen margarita machine, which resides in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. "There's no doubt where the credit belongs," said Dr. Rayna Green, curator of the Smithsonian's National Museum in Washington, D.C. "Museum officials spent more than a year researching the history of the frozen margarita and verifying its origin."
The significance of this machine was quantified this past September when the museum released its list of the top 10 American inventions. Topping the list was Thomas Edison's light bulb and "Mariano's Cool Creation" came in 10th. Mariano (who goes by only his first name) did not invent the frozen margarita; he just figured out how to produce the drink in quantities large enough to make an entire restaurant tipsy.
"It is an inspiring story about the rise of a smart, young businessman who made this incredible choice at the right time, " said Dr. Green. "No, it's not the Model T, but we have a lot of little things in the museum that are little innovations that became important."
It was an idea inspired by a Slurpee machine, executed by a young restaurant owner struggling to stay afloat. "As a result," said Dr. Green, "margaritas and Tex-Mex cuisine emerged as an essential part of the American culture."
"The margarita made tequila an acceptable drink for women," explained Marc N. Scheinman, a marketing professor at Pace University's Lubin School of Business and author of a study called "The Global Market for Tequila".
"Demographics played a huge role in the popularity of the frozen margarita," said Scheinman. "The spread of the frozen margarita coincided with large numbers of young women coming into the workforce."
The rise of the margarita in the late 1970s and early 1980s set off a radical change in the Tex-Mex restaurant business. Vintage Tex-Mex restaurants didn't have bars, but from the 1970s on, the bar became the center of every Tex-Mex restaurant.
"To us at the Smithsonian, it's a story about American innovation and entrepreneurial spirit," said Green, "and it coincides with a very interesting story of Tex-Mex becoming a phenomenon."
In 1971, Mariano, opened his first restaurant with $500 and an S.B.A. loan. He had no designs of becoming an inventor or an icon; he was just trying to succeed in running his restaurant and realize the American dream of owning his own business. Back then, margaritas were not well known. People either didn't know about them or didn't want to go to all the trouble of making them. The squeezing of limes, procuring the right tequila and portioning the right amount of other ingredients proved cumbersome.
Enter Mariano and his revolutionary machine. He had just opened his first restaurant, Mariano's Mexican Cuisine, in Dallas, where he proudly served his father's secret recipe margaritas. Feedback immediately started pouring in and some of it was not favorable. The drinks were inconsistent in both temperature and taste, most of them not cold enough. After arguing with his bartenders who threatened to quit and go back to making scotch-and-waters and bourbon-and-Cokes at their previous jobs, Mariano had a sleepless night.
The next day, while making a stop at a 7-Eleven convenience store, Mariano saw a kid pulling a frozen Slurpee out of a machine. A light bulb went on. A solution had been found, fixing Mariano's three problems. The margaritas could be precisely measured and made in large batches in the morning, making every margarita the same high quality, and easy for bartenders to produce during the rush. As far as the temperature issue, what could be colder than frozen?
At first the new creation changed the way people socialized in the hip Upper Greenville Avenue area of Dallas, before quickly spreading all across the city. Mariano's became the popular destination for young professionals, Dallas Cowboys and other professional athletes, SMU students, upscale apartment residents, and other young Dallasites looking for a good time. Then, as frozen margarita machines became prevalent throughout the state, Texans ushered in a national phenomenon. The frozen margarita became the most popular drink in America and frozen margarita machines are now a worldwide hit and can be found in 36 countries. It has changed the culture of Mexican food and added to the bottom line of thousands of restaurants in Texas and across the globe.
But while the social aspect of the frozen margarita has been well documented over the years, only recently has the major impact of Mariano's machine on the American economy come into focus. It has created thousands of new jobs and has been a significant influence on the prosperity of our nation's hospitality industry's bottom line at thousands of restaurants in Texas and across the globe.
Over the past 40 years, many journalists have chronicled Mariano's invention with cleverly written prose such as "the party in a tank that fueled the disco era in Texas," "the machine that jump-started the Mexican food craze" and "the machine that changed happy hour forever."
Smithsonian Museum director Brent Glass called the invention "a classic example of the American entrepreneurial spirit". With the advent of the machine, margaritas became as standard as chips and salsa at Tex-Mex restaurants.
Consider this. The hospitality industry (restaurants, hotels, etc.) is the single largest creator of new jobs, as well as the biggest employer in the United States. The mortality rate in the restaurant business prior to 1971 was the highest of any business. Sometimes the difference between a restaurant keeping its doors open and closing, comes down to unsustainable losses of a few hundred dollars per month, due to lack of profits, inconsistent quality and labor costs.
Mariano's machine addressed these obstacles and helped overcome them. The popularity of frozen margaritas boosted the bottom line by adding extra sales to lunch and dinner tickets that might not have included an alcoholic beverage otherwise.
The frozen margarita machine's consistent quality diminished the amount of drinks that were returned. Its ease of operation helped bartenders' efficiency and increased productivity and reduced costs. These benefits, along with others provided by the machine, allowed restaurants not only to keep their doors open, but also to be profitable. Entrepreneurs could now open new restaurants that they otherwise would not have, creating more jobs. Mariano was the first example of this. He was struggling to keep his new restaurant going when his invention stabilized his business, created a positive cash flow and kept his dream from going down the drain.
Helping the economy never tasted so good.
If you are one of the 185,000 American who will drink a margarita over the next hour, offer up a toast to Mariano, the inventor of the frozen margarita machine four decades ago.
Cheers to 40 years! Viva la margarita!