History of Tiki Bars and Cultural Appropriation
By Sammi Katz and Olivia McGiff
It is an undoubtedly difficult time for the hospitality industry. Every day a different restaurant closes the shutters, another bar pulls its steel gate down for good. Since its invention, a kind of watering hole has guided America through its most stressful times: the tiki bar.
Decorated with bamboo and beach lights, with bartenders in aloha shirts serving mai tais, tiki bars have been a booming part of the American hospitality industry. “Hang up the phone and hang up that lei,” say the tiki bars. “Here’s something delicious in a stupid cup.” They offer an exhilarating escape from the weight of the world.
But Tiki’s roots are a long way from the Pacific Islands. Tiki, a Maori word for the carved image of a god or ancestor, has become synonymous with tricky souvenirs and decorations in the US and elsewhere. Now a new generation of beverage industry professionals are shedding light on the history of the genre of racial inequality and cultural appropriation that has long been ignored because it clashes with carefree aesthetics. Let’s peel back the pineapple leaves to examine the choices that created a marketing mainstay.
Ernest Gantt, better known as Donn Beach, opened Don the Beachcomber in Southern California in 1933. He became known for his “Rhum Rhapsodies”, the first tiki drinks. They were elaborate and theatrical, with fresh juices and homemade syrups, and could contain up to 10 ingredients.
Donn had four Filipino bartenders whom he called “the four boys” who made all of these drinks behind the scenes.
Victor Bergeron, inspired by his visits to Don the Beachcomber, opened his own tiki restaurant in Northern California in 1937. It included a gift shop and incorporated nautical accents and shipwreck decor. He even offered guests free food and drink in exchange for decorations, earning his nickname and bar name, Trader Vic’s.
Both restaurants served Chinese food as it was considered “exotic” and yet was recognizable to the American palate. Both became chains too. In the 1960s there were 25 Trader Vic’s and 16 Don the Beachcombers worldwide.
After World War II, Tiki launched and joined the trend of theme restaurants that flourished in the late 1950s and early 60s. They created an idyllic setting reminiscent of “island life” by using images of palm trees, tribal masks, and topless local women in grass skirts.
Restaurants turned religious idols into kitschy artifacts and even drinking vessels called tiki mugs.
In the 1990s, Tiki was almost dead when the zombie and pain reliever gave way to appletini and cosmo. But all trends eventually become retro, and soon nostalgic amateurs began to uncover relics and recipes of this mid-century phenomenon.
The craft cocktail revolution of the 2000s paved the way for the modern tiki renaissance. Americans were once again familiarized with classic drinks (like gimlets and French 75s), upscale spirits, and high-quality ingredients. For the better half of the decade, cocktail bars and bartenders had no tolerance for paper umbrellas, and tiki drinks couldn’t lose their bad reputation as sickly sweet slushies.
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Around the 2008 recession, tiki bars sprang up across the country and cocktails were reverted to the caliber of their ancestors ‘Rhum Rhapsody’. Modern tiki bars, like their predecessors, aim to evoke a sense of escape.
But tiki bars can often reinforce the notion that Oceania is just a vacation spot, which the history of America denies with the region. When Mai-Kai, a tiki restaurant in Florida, sold 10,000 “mystery drinks” in 1960, presented by half-dressed “mystery girls,” the US military used the Pacific Islands to test atomic bombs. Fantasy was far from reality.
Tiki focuses on fun, creative drinks in a portable environment. A new wave of industry professionals are re-imagining these delicious contributions to cocktail culture in an attempt to eradicate the appropriation and racism that have accompanied Tiki since its inception. We spoke to some of them about how they are working to change the business for the better.
“I have to give it to Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic because their daring approach to mixology was over the top. I don’t know if we’d still have American cocktails without them, ”Mustipher says.
Describing a new wave of tiki bars, Mustipher notes, “It’s not about straw and bamboo or dancing girls. It’s about the level of craftsmanship and hospitality, the attention to detail. “Tiki, she adds, is a” deeply considered, well-executed, high-production value cocktail experience. “
The region has “higher poverty rates, lack of access to essential services and more exposure to climate change,” added Kunkel.
A recent move aims to switch from the word “tiki” to “tropical” and Kunkel is on board. “I just don’t think it’s necessary to use stereotypes or appropriate cultural elements to transport people.” However, she says Tiki can encourage people to learn about the culture of the Pacific islanders.
“We started working with bartenders from different backgrounds who share their culture in a way that creates appreciation and exchange, which is a different power dynamic than appropriation. It’s about consent and equality. “
Tom is also reinvesting in groups whose cultures have historically been appropriated. “There’s a great opportunity to use what drawn people to aesthetics to help some of these communities,” says Tom. “Honestly, when you have benefited from her paintings, it is really time to give something back.”
“Going to a bar and seeing mostly white men in Hawaiian shirts showcasing this fetishization of a culture when the people of this country can’t even escape what is happening to them. It’s dark, ”he said. But he added, “I just had a Mai Tai last night, that’s a good drink!”
Education is at the heart of Uffre’s work. “I think the next education consumers yearn for is the sociopolitical and cultural aspects of spirits.”
It’s not a “last call” for Tiki. But the work for industry is just beginning to make these tropical oases inclusive for all, which will benefit businesses and consumers alike.
“If we continue to educate ourselves, it will encourage more discussions and more discourse. I also think it will bring better drinks, ”says Uffre. “When you learn about these things and understand the complexities, you want to make better drinks because you want to honor what you do.”
Sammi Katz is a writer, bartender, and founder of A Girl’s Guide to Drinking Alone website. Olivia McGiff is an interdisciplinary illustrator and designer based in Brooklyn.