At Pepper Smash, competition is part of the beverage program. Each month, the Plano, Texas, restaurant hosts a “Monday Mixoff” where mixologists create a cocktail using mystery ingredients and celebrity judges pick a winner in front of a captivated audience.
For Josh Hicok, operations manager, the competitions are an extension of the Pepper Smash brand. “The idea of Pepper Smash is to make mixology fun for everyone,” he says. When approached about the idea for a competition, Hicok thought it would be a fun way to test his mixologists' skills. “The original idea was to have mixologists compete with no time limit and giving them the ingredients a week beforehand,” he explains. Hicok increased the difficulty by giving mixologists the ingredients immediately before the contest starts and only allowing them 10 minutes to make a drink. The “mystery baskets” contain a spirit like rum or tequila and a challenging ingredient such as tomatoes, cilantro, or grape jelly. Competitors have to devise a drink that highlights the ingredients and make enough for three judges plus samples for customers. “We definitely made it more intense,” he laughs. Mixologists can win prizes like baseball tickets and also have their drinks featured on the Pepper Smash menu for a month.
The competitions have become a learning opportunity for customers and staff alike. “It’s an experience for customers and it’s fun to watch them interact with the competition and listen to the judges,” Hicok says. It has also helped the Pepper Smash team flex their creative muscles when crafting new cocktails. “It keeps the team pushing and pulling on everything that they’ve learned,” he adds. “They really have to take all of their skills and apply it to what they’re doing.” After the competitions, Hicok talks to the mixologists about what they did well and what they could improve on. “I always try the drinks and I talk to them and say, ‘This is what I noticed,’” he says. Hicok also encourages mixologists to enter local and national mixology competitions.
“Monday Mixoff” winners have even been poached by competing restaurants after they’ve been featured on the restaurant’s social media channels. “I’ve had two of my mixologists stolen in the last five months,” Hicok says. He looks at it in a positive way: It means that his employees are doing something special. “A lot of restaurants say they want their employees to think outside the box, but we’re truly committed to doing that and thinking that way.”