“I’ve tasted some other mezcals, and none really were as appealing as Wild Shot. It is definitely the smoothest mezcal I’ve ever tasted, and for me to drink it straight, it’s that good. It’s that smooth.” - Steve Brooks, Director of Beverage Developement for Tumbleweed Tex Mex Grill & Margarita Bar
Story and Photos by Fred Minnick
This is not something I’m used seeing at a chain restaurant’s bar: fresh-squeezed limes, agave nectar and a cocktail shaker. Where are all the pre-mixed drinks? Where’s the Frozen Margarita machine? And, hey, why does the bartender actually understand the difference between Tennessee whiskey and bourbon, and how does he know what mezcal is? Is this really a chain?
Welcome to Tumbleweed Tex Mex Grill & Margarita Bar, a Midwest regional Tex-Mex chain competing with other casual-dining concepts. But behind the bar there’s really no competition. Instead of watering down drinks and finding ways to inject cheap high-fructose corn syrup mixers into cocktails, the 28-unit chain uses fresh and all-natural ingredients.
“If you get a Strawberry Margarita here, we’re using real strawberries,” says Steve Brooks, Director of Beverage Development for Tumbleweed. That may not sound like a big deal for you craft mixologists out there. But those fresh strawberries are found across all 28 stores in a chain that earns millions every year.
There’s a reason why most chains go pre-mixed—it’s easier. But in reaction to the norm, Tumbleweed doesn’t take the easy way out. Brooks’s beverage program accounts for ten percent of the chain’s total sales, and there’s one cocktail in particular that’s separating Tumbleweed from other chains in the pasture. It’s the Red Solo Cup using Wild Shot Mezcal, the brand from country music sensation Toby Keith. The cocktail’s name is, of course, the name of Keith’s mega-hit song “Red Solo Cup.”
Brooks actually approached the Toby Keith management group for permission to name the cocktail after the song. They said yes and have supported Tumbleweed with drink recipes, marketing and creative. “Toby Keith’s people have been great,” Brooks says.
“I don’t think enough people know mezcal, so I was trying to come up with a drink that had a very mainstream name to it,” Brooks says. “Most of our guests, as well as most people in this part of the country, have heard the song “Red Solo Cup” or they’ve had an event where they’re served drinks in red Solo cups.”
And when a guest orders the Red Solo Cup, the waiter or waitress sings Keith’s song to the guest. “We try to have a fun bar,” Brooks says.
But the secret to Tumbleweed’s success is much more than waiters singing songs. The bartenders are well-trained, the food is good and, hey, any place with 27 tequilas is bound to be successful. So when Brooks decided to add mezcal to the menu, chances were it would do well. But, why did he choose Wild Shot to be his lone mezcal?
“I loved it,” he says. “I’ve tasted some other mezcals, and none really were as appealing as Wild Shot. It is definitely the smoothest mezcal I’ve ever tasted, and for me to drink it straight, it’s that good. It’s that smooth.”
And the fact that Wild Shot packs the traditional gusano, or worm, in the bottle has actually been a bonus, Brooks says. “Some people love the concept of the worm and will actually want to buy a drink with the worm in it,” he says. “There’s only one worm per bottle. That’s why we offer a gummy worm.”
Brooks’s waitstaff also finds ways to promote food pairings with mezcal drinks. “Mezcal has a wonderful smoky flavor and complements our food,” he says. Servers will suggest pairing
mezcal with steak, chicken and seafood. Brooks believes Tumbleweed is the perfect concept for mezcal pairings because all proteins are cooked on a mesquite wood-fired grill. “Not all concepts can do that with mezcal,” Brooks says.
But, as we’ve learned, not all casual chain-dining concepts are like Tumbleweed. It’s an anomaly in the world of high-volume food programs. Brooks and Tumbleweed take an oldschool approach to dining. “Anytime you come to visit us at Tumbleweed, we’ll guarantee to give you a good meal and some great drinks,” Brooks says.
Now that’s not something you hear a chain saying every day.