PHOTOGRAPHY BY RYAN DONAHUE
"The people I love to work with are the great storytellers: the restaurants that are having so much fun with it. They're not taking themselves too seriously, they're confident and they are making their food about beauty, texture, brightness, freshness and a celebration of market-driven ingredients."
Since last fall, Lauren De Vine has been in the midst of creating a great story herself—one that currently involves acting as a consultant on the cocktail menu for Empress Tavern (the eagerly anticipated restaurant from chefs Mike Thiemann and Matt Masera of Mother) and living in the midst of what she calls the "glitter hurricane" of her own booming company, Lauren De Vine Beverage. It's the story of a massively energetic and inspiring woman who says she is head-over-heels in love with the challenges and opportunities she's facing, and the friendships she's formed while creating what she calls a "juice company for booze."
Lauren, who lived in Sacramento for many years, now calls Carmel her home base, as she travels between clients everywhere from California to Brooklyn to the U.K. and Europe. Ten years ago, she got her start while bartending at San Francisco's Beauty Bar, moving on to such well-respected restaurants as Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn, where she created drinks that used fresh juices and ingredients from around the Bay Area. Stepping away from the bar for a few years, Lauren went to work for a San Francisco startup where she became the CEO and learned what it takes to fund and operate a successful business.
After living in Iceland for a bit, she returned to California with a vision: a beverage company that taps into not just what is fresh from the market, but also local networks of farmers, artists and party hosts, and introduces her customers to all that their region has to offer. Her goal isn't simply to create delicious beverages, but to elevate her clients' and the industry's expectation of what a great cocktail experience should be.
That "great cocktail experience" is the key to Lauren's brand, and that brand is Lauren herself. She's the one going to the farm or the markets to pick out the fresh produce, the one who invites friends to have a sunset cocktail on the beach, the one tending the bar at a friend's dinner party, and the one who says "Remember how brave and fearless we were when we were young? Why can't we be just as fearless now?" That fearlessness is embodied in her products too—using foraged and unique ingredients, and light and open flavors.
At home, in Monterey County, Lauren operates a weekly service she likens to a community- supported agriculture (CSA) subscription program, where she provides customers cocktail base mixtures that include a rotating cast of ingredients. Some recent offerings have been a cucumber, lemongrass, Thai basil, chili and lemon mix, and a springtime mix with kumquat, lavender and rose geranium. Her customers have the choice of adding alcohol—or not. Indeed, as Lauren has discovered, close to 35% of her customers don't drink alcohol, but when at parties or restaurants, they yearn for a drink that's as unique as the alcoholic ones being served. Offering cocktail bases means that her weekly customers can have what she calls a "user-controlled" drink experience.
Lauren has found that today's consumer is much more savvy than some retailers or restaurateurs give them credit for. More diners are embracing dishes like those we'll soon see on the menu at Empress Tavern, where Lauren says they approach food with "simplicity, curiosity and care." Those same diners want a similar experience with their beverages, wherein flavors, sensations and visual presentation complement the food rather than upstage it.
"As we look at the future pricing of protein in the market, Mike and Matt's concepts are very forward-thinking. I can't help but think that many drinks are still rooted in that heavy Prohibition-style menu, which doesn't reflect the fact that so many restaurants now source fresh ingredients. Wherever I am in the world, I'm always talking about both Mother and Empress, and their market-driven menus. It's really fun for me to be a part of what they're creating and that great storytelling experience they give their customers."
Thiemann is also thrilled to be getting the benefit of Lauren's experience.
"I brought Lauren in to strengthen our bar program, primarily on the creative side," he says. "I like her feminine and subtle touches, which I believe is missing in Sacramento. She has made a dramatic impact and our bar would be nothing without her influence and leadership."
As Lauren puts the finishing touches on the drinks menu for Empress, she is also working on the next level of her business. She is now designing beverage menus for restaurants in Los Angeles and New Orleans, and she plans to begin marketing her CSA mixes on a larger scale. Currently sold exclusively within Monterey County, she is talking with retailers who will sell bottled, shelf-stable versions of her mixes that allow the customer to simply add alcohol or sparkling water, give it a little shake and enjoy anywhere.
To see the hard work and adventures that go into her beverages, check out her company's Facebook page (facebook.com/LaurenDeVineBeverage), which is filled with news of the farms and forests where she sources her ingredients, the recipes she's creating and the events she's a part of. Best of all, later this year we can visit Empress Tavern and try for ourselves the unique and thoughtful beverages she's created for our city.