In these unprecedented times, the future of our most-loved restaurants and bars have fallen into question. Due to the mandated closures sweeping our nation, many establishments in the hospitality industry have closed their doors to the public or limit their offerings for customers purely for take-out orders. For many, the result has been a massive decrease in patronage. But for Charity Johnston of Toca Madera, business is booming.
Charity is the Global Beverage Director for The Madera Group. This organization develops, owns, and operates well-known restaurant venues throughout Southern California and Arizona, including the Toca Madera concept in Beverly Hills and Scottsdale. Despite their current success, the leadership team at the Madera Group wasn’t so hopeful right out of the gate. We sat down with Charity to inquire about how Toca Madera is handling the drastic changes and challenges in the industry.
Charity Johnston has been behind the bar since age 21 and worked at various restaurants and bars in Los Angeles. Her first menu was launched at the opening of Roku, which she was awarded the 2016 Zagat 30 under 30 award for. She went on to work side by side with Gordon Ramsay on FOX tv’s The FWord, pairing cocktails to his creations. Following that, she was on bar rescue as John Taffer’s bar expert. Currently, Charity is the Director of Beverage for the Madera Group which includes Toca Madera and Tocaya.
How has your business strategy changed at Toca Madera during the COVID-19 pandemic?
At Toca Madera, we are all about the experience. From food and cocktails to decor and atmosphere, we rely heavily on visualization and extravagance. Before the pandemic, to-go service was never a part of our concept for Toca Madera. We took the first two weeks of the stay-at-home order to take a step back to visualize how we would execute this new service. How could we translate our modern vibe into take-out offerings while still maintaining our brand? We knew it was our duty to do something for our California and Arizona communities that we love to serve.
Thanks to the state of California loosening the reins on restrictions for carry-out cocktails, Toca Madera is now offering signature Azuñia Tequila cocktails available with food purchase. How did you decide which cocktails you were going to include on this exclusive menu?
We knew we wanted the cocktails we offered to follow the fresh, housemade, craft model of the Toca Madera concept. But the challenge was how to do this without spending a lot of money on a whole new business model, with a limited staff, and everything required to have a take out program like packaging, taking orders, and customer service. I started by going through our existing cocktail menu and cherry-picking the “Toca favorites.” Rather than reinvent the wheel, we decided to stick to those same recipes but allow our consumers to play a role in making their cocktail. Bringing the bar home.
How did you do that?
We knew that people in our communities were at home, and the majority of them were most likely looking for something to do. So, we figured we’d make our cocktails an interactive at-home experience. We had to consider what would translate to our customer’s at-home bar; most would not likely have a cocktail shaker or the quality of ice we use in our restaurants. So, we decided we’d educate our customers on how to put together their own Toca Madera craft cocktail.
First, we have a set schedule of when staff members will come in to prepare our fresh ingredients for our select cocktails, to ensure consistency and taste; this makes the base of the cocktail. Every to-go order has enough spirit to make two cocktails and Toca provides printed labels with the ingredients and instructions on how to build. And of course, a garnish is offered to give the cocktail the perfect finishing touch.
With Earth Day on the horizon, how is sustainability playing a role in your new business model?
During these times, cost consciousness is essential. We repurpose and reuse as much as possible. We’re recycling items that we have in-house like baggies and dry goods. The herbs we use, including thyme, cilantro, and mint, are all being used in both our cocktail and culinary programs. We still provide a garnish because a garnish is part of the experience, but now we use dehydrated limes instead of fresh. Not only do they look cool and have a lovely scent, but they are more efficient. Then there are other special touches, like a Tajín rim on the Amante Picante made with Azuñia Blanco, lime juice, agave, serrano pepper, and cilantro.
How is this new take-out program going?
The program is going well, and it’s growing. Pre-COVID-19, our beverage program was 50% of the business. Once we switched to take-out, we anticipated our beverage program would drop to 5%, 10% tops. But it’s 20%. People are ordering for virtual and at-home happy hours with their friends and family. Our customers have told us that it feels like they’re getting “Toca at home.”
We haven’t received any negative feedback so far. Just today, we had a customer place an order for six people–that’s 12 margaritas! We couldn’t be more thrilled. This experience has proven to us that every day brings something new, and you have to roll with the punches. Even though I’ve been in this industry for a long time (I won’t disclose HOW long), I’m surprised to find that I’m having just as much fun as I do behind the bar!
Why did you choose Azuñia to be the spirit of choice for your take-out cocktails?
I have a personal connection with Azuñia Tequila. I love the brand and the representation of farm and family, and this time is all about friends and family coming together. Even during order pickup, I’m noticing how kind people are to one another. That’s what Azuñia is all about. A bonus is that Azuñia uses organic agave, which stays true to our concept at Toca Madera.
If you are in the Los Angeles or Scottsdale areas, be sure to order these craft take-out Azuñia Tequila cocktails from Charity and the rest of the team at Toca Madera.
Calling All Bartenders
Are you feeling inspired to create your craft cocktail recipes at home? Then you won’t want to miss our #HomeIsWhereTheBarIs home-bartending competition, kicking off Tuesday 4/21/20, hosted by Eastside Distilling. Follow Eastside Distilling on Instagram to join the competition and to see both star and emerging bartenders compete with their signature home-bar cocktail creations.
Pick up a Bottle
Purchase Azuñia Tequila online and have it delivered to your home or locate your nearest retailer.