'Last time, I burned out two blenders," sighed Bernice as she began plans for another summer margarita bash. "I guess I'll have to serve them on the rocks this year.""But the slushiness is 90 percent of the fun!" I protested. "You can't get to Margaritaville on the rocks!"
I promised I would look for help, but this time, help found me. The next morning, a truck parked alongside my neighbor's house as they set up for the husband's 50th birthday party. The truck pulled a trailer bearing the logo of The Margarita Man (619-575-2565; www.margaritamansd.com ). The Man was delivering an industrial-sized frozen-drink machine; Bernice's party would be slushy after all.
"The Margarita Man Company first started in San Antonio in the '80s," said San Diego owner Bill Thompson. "I thought the concept was cool, so I bought into the franchise."
The margarita machine works its slushy magic this way: "There's a refrigerated barrel with rotating blades on the inside. As ice builds on the walls of the barrel, the blades shave it off. Eventually, you have more ice crystals than liquid, so you get a frozen drink. There's a lot of science behind making a frozen margarita" -- for one thing, the precise ratio of water to sugar to alcohol.
What makes the drinks, said Thompson, are the high-quality mixes. "In trade shows, they have been consistent gold and silver winners. They're made with fresh fruit and fresh fruit juices. The most popular one is the traditional margarita, which is a lime drink. The mango mix is our second most popular -- either for margaritas [tequila] or daiquiris [rum]." Other flavors include strawberry, passion fruit, pina colada, mai tai, lemon -- the list goes on. "If you factor in making the drinks with tequila, rum, vodka, or virgin, we have the capability of making about 60 different drinks."
Working with the Man begins with making a reservation. "People can call or visit the website. I recommend as much lead time as possible -- a couple of weeks is not unheard of," especially around July 4 and Cinco de Mayo. On delivery day, "You know we're coming, because we call about 15 minutes before we get there. Party prep tends to be stressful, and we don't want people worrying, 'Where's the Margarita Man?'"
Upon arrival, the Man unloads the machine, "which comes on a wheeled table, and we put it wherever the customer wants it. We can provide a 25, 50, or 100-foot 12-guage extension cord. The machine needs only a standard household current -- 115 volts -- but because it's a heavy appliance, it needs more amperage. We need to isolate the machine electrically. I've had calls where people are panicking -- the machine is making noises and the drinks aren't quite frozen. It's usually something simple, like Aunt Betty plugged in a power strip and three Crock-Pots right where the machine is. It's just a matter of moving the plug."
After the machine is set up, "it's time to go to margarita school. We grab our bucket, our giant spoon, and whichever mix you've chosen" -- there are 25 available -- "and head for the kitchen sink. We make the first batch for you, but we also talk you through it so you can do the next one." Water, mix, and alcohol (provided by the customer) get measured into the bucket. "Our goal is, number one, a good tasting drink; number two, a drink that will let people relax and get a little happy without taking them from zero to stupid in a big hurry. We try to create a medium-strength drink: about three liters of tequila for a batch of margaritas, and about two liters of rum for rum-based drinks. You end up with about four gallons of room temperature raw material that we take and pour into the machine. We show the customer how to turn it on, and the first drinks should be ready in 30 to 40 minutes."
Even so, Thompson recommends starting the machine a couple of hours early. That way, "the liquid in the machine is also refrigerated, and it speeds up the process as the party wears on. Also, the machine has a low-level sensor that lets you know when you have about 25 drinks left, but if it's a 90-degree day or if there are 90 people there, I recommend just lifting the lid off the machine and seeing if the level is low." Thompson provides straws and 9-ounce cups, which works out to about 70 drinks per batch. "But if a guy shows up with a 7-11 Big Gulp cup, we can't control that."
He warned that "people gravitate to the machine. I consistently hear customers say, 'I've got so much beer left. I shouldn't have bought two cases,' or two kegs. I try to educate consumers about not overbuying other alcohol, but it's hard to enlighten the first-timers. Repeat customers know the drill."
Thompson's phone number is on the machine in case any concerns arise midparty, and he keeps his phone on until 7:30 p.m. seven days a week. At party's end, "all the customer needs to do is turn off the machine and go to bed. They don't need to clean it or drain it -- maybe just wheel it into a spot where it won't get rained on. When we come pick it up, we save the leftovers, because they're awesome on the rocks -- it's a crime against humanity to throw that stuff down the sink, so we save it for them. If they don't have Tupperware, we'll put it in a Ziploc bag."
Cost for the Margarita Man: $170 for the first machine, $150 for each additional machine. Price includes one mix, cups, straws, umbrellas, table skirt, and salt rimmer. Extra mixes cost $20 , and the Man leaves more mix than you think you'll need. Unopened mixes may be returned. There is a temporary delivery charge of $10-$30 (depending on location) until gas prices go below $3 a gallon.