Since the start of the pandemic, Americans have contended with shortages of everything from toilet paper to ketchup packets.
Bars and restaurants across the country say they are having difficulty sourcing the machines — some of which cost well more than $5,000 — that make such beloved summertime sips as the frozen margarita and frosé. And at least one popular, higher-end American manufacturer of the machines, Louisiana-based Frosty Factory, said it could be months before bars and restaurants can expect to receive one.
“We’re currently shipping orders we received last November,” said Frosty Factory president Heath Williams.
For establishments that already have a frozen-drink machine in place, there may be little cause for worry. But for newer dining and drinking spots or ones that have to replace a broken machine — some models, especially cheaper ones, are notorious for breaking down, bar and restaurant professionals say — the panic is setting in.
And the timing couldn’t be worse, as huge swaths of the country have been sweltering under rolling heat waves.
“We are in limbo,” said a frustrated Morgan Nevans, director of food and beverage at Veranda, a trendy restaurant in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. Nevans has been searching for a quality frozen-drink machine since March, after going through two cheaper ones last year that both stopped working properly.
As of earlier this week, Nevans was still in the hunt, although she thought she might have a lead on something she could acquire in the coming weeks through a distant industry connection. “It’s like I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy,” she explained.
Others say they may just have to settle for one of those lesser-quality models, which can be more readily available.
That’s what Christopher Reyes, a bar proprietor in Brooklyn, NY, said he plans on doing to replace a broken machine at Ponyboy, one of his establishments. He’s not happy about the situation, noting that the lower-end machines take longer to freeze a drink and often don’t yield a cocktail with the perfect frosty consistency. Instead, it’s more like a watery slushy.
“You know when it snows and puddles up?” he said of the disappointing texture. “It’s not the best frozen drink.”
Reyes added that he has little choice: His customers demand frozen sips when the weather turns sticky. In turn, he makes good money off the cocktails: He can sell up to 600 of the icy drinks during the summer weeks at Ponyboy — or about 15% of his revenue.
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Not everyone is willing to keep chasing after the right machine — or to settle for something that’s second-best.
Michael Neff, bar director of Bar Loretta, a San Antonio, Texas, establishment, said he gave up when he was in the process of opening the place in 2021 and couldn’t find what he wanted. He doesn’t have too many regrets a year later, pointing to the fact that the maintenance on the machines “is legendary” and they take up a lot of space.
“You have to design your bar around it,” said Neff, who conceded he could still look for a machine at some point. “Maybe next summer,” he added.
What’s behind the machine shortage? As with much else since the pandemic, it’s all about supply-chain issues. At Frosty Factory, the parts that go into the machine are becoming difficult to source: Heath Williams said he’s taken to buying what he needs in larger quantities — he’s now purchasing 500 electric motors at a time, versus his previous orders of 100 to 150 — in case he runs into the inevitable supply problems.
The issue goes beyond manufacturers and their sourcing of components, however. The simple fact is that frozen drinks are more popular than ever, so there is unprecedented demand for the machines. Williams said he’s selling three times the number of Frosty Factory machines compared to a few years ago.
Companies that specialize in drink mixes for the machines are seeing much the same. Helena Tubis, a vice president of Kelvin Slush Co., a New York-based mix supplier, said orders are up 200% in the last two years.
Tubis said a number of factors are playing into the boom, but she mostly points to what might be called the frosé effect: When the frozen wine cocktail caught on a few years ago, it proved to the world there was a difference — and, some might add, classier — way to go the boozy, slushy route.
“It showed that a frozen cocktail wasn’t just a frozen margarita,” she said.
Establishments have now upped their frozen game beyond frosé, with even craft cocktail bars and high-end restaurants joining the crowd. In Knoxville, Tenn., Brother Wolf, a craft bar that specializes in Italian sips, there’s a frozen Garibaldi, a cocktail made with Campari, on the menu. Owner Jessica King says mixologists who once derided frozen drinks are coming to realize they can’t afford to be so snobby anymore.
“Fancy-pants bartenders are learning to give people what they want,” she said.
But those same bartenders are also learning to get creative with frozen drinks and keep them interesting. Matt Strauss, a senior vice president with the Tao Group, a leading bar and restaurant operator, called the frosty sips a “new frontier.” At Lavo, a Tao Group Italian restaurant in New York City, there’s a frozen hazelnut espresso martini on the menu that speaks to this next-generation of icy cocktails.
Others in the industry point to the pandemic as a game-changer for frozen drinks. With establishments increasingly focusing on serving customers outdoors because of the health crisis, it has only made sense to serve something frozen to suit the alfresco vibe. Even a classic summer sip like a gin-and-tonic doesn’t quite cut it the same way, industry professionals say.
What’s more: Frozen drinks are hassle-free — that is, no mixing or shaking by bartenders involved — so they save on labor. “Once you have it in the machine, you can kinda leave it alone,” said Glenda Sansone, owner of the Ellington, a restaurant on New York City’s Upper West Side that opened last fall. Sansone added that she breathed a sigh of relief when she was finally able to track down a machine in time for the height of frozen margarita madness this summer.
But what about those places that are still sans machine? They’re finding ways to deliver the chill without the high-end machinery. At Bar Loretta in San Antonio, they’re making a frosty drink inspired by a Brazilian-style milkshake using — what else? — a milkshake blender.
And at Veranda in New York City, they have two cocktails — the Wanderlust and the Manhattan Mule — that are served with lots of crushed ice, almost to the point that they resemble frozen drinks.
Morgan Nevans, the Veranda director, said she won’t give up her search for a drink machine, but she noted that the icy cocktails fit the bill for now. “They have the same refreshing factor,” she said.