The History, Mystery and Community of Tiki Bar Loyalty Clubs
If you happened to be around in the early days of the Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, you might have been offered a small card, illustrated with all the drinks from the menu. Your mission was to order and drink all 46 of them, receiving stamps to show your progress. Upon completion, you would receive a special, free drink called the Big Bamboo, served in your own bamboo mug and kept for you behind the bar. Those who achieved this status were card-carrying members of the Okole Maluna Society (loosely translated, this is Hawaiian for “bottoms up”).
Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, owner of Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans, traces tiki bar loyalty clubs back to the Mai Kai. “The motivation for doing it is all very simple: keep people coming back to your bar,” he says. “In the 1950s through the 1970s, when tiki bars were at their peak, during the golden age, there was a lot of competition. Most places had five to seven high-end tiki places in their downtowns. So how do you keep people coming back to your place as opposed to all of the other places that are trying to compete with you? A loyalty program was one of those.”
The Mai Kai’s Oloke Maluna Society only lasted two seasons. According to Tim "Swanky" Glazner’s forthcoming book on Mai Kai’s history, “it was decided they should not encourage the patrons to drink so many cocktails so quickly.”
The concept of tiki loyalty clubs is believed to have originated at the Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where patrons could join the Oloke Maluna Society upon drinking all 46 cocktails on the menu. Photo via Flickr/Ed Schipul.
Between tiki’s golden age and its recent resurgence as part of the craft cocktail movement (sometime in the early aughts), there was the dark ages of the tiki cocktail. “The craft cocktail world wouldn’t touch a tiki drink with a ten-foot pole,” says Berry. The Tonga Hut, which originally opened in Los Angeles in 1958, weathered the storm, becoming a beer and whiskey bar with a pool table and dartboard somewhere in the middle. Twelve years ago, the Tonga Hut came under its current management. They wanted to bring the tiki drinks back but didn’t know where to start. Head mixologist and general manager Marie King, who joined the team five years ago, traces the origins of their loyalty program, the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard, and the return to craft tiki drinks, to an organic interaction. “Someone brought in the Grog Log [by Jeff ‘Beachbum’ Berry] and said ‘here, try to make these drinks’ and then someone said ‘what do I get if I drink all the drinks?’ That's kind of how it started. And then it became a thing.”
When King arrived on the scene, she began to treat the program seriously. “I digitized the inventory and made sure we had everything in stock and then it really started taking off,” says King. “There's a ton of ingredients to keep track of, that’s a part time job in and of itself.” To join the Loyal Order of the Drooling Bastard (named for the fountain in the corner), each participant drinks all 78 drinks from the Grog Log in a 12-month period. If successful, the new member chooses a tiki name, creates a plaque for the wall and receives a pendant and a perpetual discount on premium cocktails.
The order is not short on aspiring members. “I would say I have at least 150 to 200 people actively working on it at a time,” says King. “On a Wednesday night you can have 20 people in there.”
For the Tonga Hut, the order was a way back to tiki excellence, rather than a gimmick. “We started it out of necessity,” says King. “We were looking to get street cred back in the tiki world.”
Trader Vic's has been defining tiki for decades. Pictured here, the chain's Vancouver location. Photo via Flickr/Rob.
Meanwhile, Martin Cate was cooking up his own loyalty club at his first tiki bar, Forbidden Island, in Alameda, California, which opened in 2006. While they offered a fairly informal club, inviting participants to drink their way through the cocktail menu (entitling them to a bumper sticker), Cate’s real goal was to get people interested in rum. He started the Kill Devil Club which required members to taste through the rum menu. “When you finished, we put a little brass plate behind the bar and then we’d have a little ceremony and give you a bottle of rum and a firm handshake,” says Cate. When he left Forbidden Island and opened Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, he knew he wanted to create an even bigger rum club there. Now, you can join the Rumbustion Society, drinking through the nearly 600 rums on hand at any given time. There are several levels, merit badges (perfect for the fez you earn when you become a Guardian of the Cove after drinking 100 rums), and a private Facebook group for members.
When you’ve sampled 300 rums, Cate takes you and a handful of other Masters of the Cove on a trip to a rum distillery somewhere in the world. You can keep going past this point, eventually joining the Black Tassel Society, which Cate describes as “our secret cult within a cult” with private meals, occasional gifts and, of course, a black tassel for your fez.
Cate has simplified the administrative portion of the club by creating a custom mobile app, which was two years in development. The app tracks where any person is in the club, helps them keep track of the rums they like and dislike, and notifies the bar manager when someone needs a signature. “We've basically taken the principles of gamification and added them to the drinking club,” says Cate. “There are ‘achievements’ to unlock, just like there are in video games, and people love that.”
While rum appreciation and education were Cate’s main goal, he’s discovered a delightful side effect. “We've formed a sense of community among the members. They've made terrific friendships, lasting friendships. They go out together. I've seen members who've met here and hang out.”
The same is true at Tonga Hut. “It becomes a family when you're in there doing it, and then once you finish you get to know so many of the regulars that you want to come back and visit your friends,” says King.
Both Cate and King emphasize the magnitude of a loyalty club undertaking. It’s not for the faint of heart. “It adds a huge layer of complexity to bar operations,” says Cate. “Operating a tiki bar is hard enough. Operating a tiki bar with 600 rums and keeping track of them is really hard, too. Then on top of that keeping track of hundreds of members of a loyalty club who are all tearing through different rums, it’s complex.”
In case membership in a tiki society isn't reason enough to keep customers coming back to Mai Kai, they put on Polynesian shows that add a dramatic level of authenticity. Photo by Sam Howzit via Flickr.
It might seem that something like the Rumbustion Society is as far as you can go within tiki loyalty. For the extremely dedicated, consider the Fraternal Order of Moai, a secret society founded in Columbus, Ohio. After the closure of a popular tiki bar there, according to Paul Senft, a member of the order, spirits writer and seminar host around tiki topics, several of the regulars got together to form a group dedicated to keeping tiki culture alive. There are now chapters all across the country. Senft suggests that interested parties start with the Port of the Initiate on the order’s website.
While there are certain parts of the order that remain mysterious to outsiders, many aspects are focused on reaching out to those who might be interested or curious. “Think of it sort of like the Masons or the Shriners once you're a fellow there's certain rituals, there's certain milestones, there's certain things to be achieved,” says Senft. The various chapters hold events throughout the year which are open to tiki enthusiasts as well as members of the order. “Whether they're members of the order or not, it's one more excuse to get together and meet other like-minded people,” says Senft.
As part of a dedicated community of tiki lovers, Senft has another idea why loyalty clubs are popular again. “It's one more motivation to leave the house,” he says. “A lot of us have our own tiki bars, so to leave our own tiki bar and go to an establishment and hang out with friends or hopefully meet some new people who share common interests takes a little bit more.”
King says that some who have finished the Grog Log are after her to start a club around Intoxica (another of Berry’s books). Although she plans to limit the numbers, she appreciates the allure of a new project, as well as the difficulty of making tiki drinks at home. “It's so much easier to go to a bar and buy a cocktail rather than having to procure all of the ingredients at home. There might be a lot of drinks in Intoxica that they want to try but they just don't have access to all the ingredients.”
For Berry, loyalty programs are a positive aspect of tiki. “Anything that engages customers and make them feel more special and part of a club is a good thing.” It’s all part of the hospitality and service that tiki bars have been known for since the beginning of the movement. “That ‘Aloha spirit’ is very important,” says Berry. “That's what a loyalty program helps foster.”