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Last Friday, as you surely knew, was a pretty big holiday: National Rum Day.
Bars and restaurants celebrated with the same fervor they display for Independence Day or Valentine’s Day: Smith Commons, Hogo, Teddy & The Bully Bar, and Farmers Fishers Bakers participated in a rum bar crawl. Fried chicken and doughnut shop GBD offered “Rum Happy Hour” with rum punches, rum doughnuts, and chicken wings with rum sauce. Cuba Libre offered half-price mojitos. Meanwhile, publicists sent rum cocktail recipes and promoted tropical-drink books. The media went crazy too: NPR explored the history of rum, Fox News listed the top 10 rums, and Zagat’s blog rounded up great places to drink rum around the country.
But it was all a sham.
National Rum Day is a holiday without a real origin. No government agency has officially recognized it. Spokespeople for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the American Rum Association, and the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association all say they have no clue how it got started. A rep for Bacardi offers the closest thing to an explanation, saying it’s an “industry-created” holiday, but she didn’t know who was involved in its creation or when.
Of course, National Rum Day isn’t the only food or drink “holiday” with a questionable genesis. Someone, somewhere has declared a day of recognition for every edible imaginable; there’s National Watermelon Day, National Crème Brûlée Day, National Caviar Day, National Bouillabaisse Day, and International Bacon Day. (What makes that last one international? No idea.) Some of these holidays were originally named by a trade association or government body. National Ice Cream Day and National Catfish Day, for instance, were created through presidential proclamation. (Thanks, Ronald Reagan.) But “official” or not, each is just as absurd as the last.
While no one seems to know where most of these holidays come from, that hasn’t stopped anyone from embracing them. My inbox is flooded with messages about this or that day. Last week, I received press releases announcing a free beverage deal for National Lemonade Day, telling me where to “experience” National Filet Mignon Day, and promoting healthy ways to “spice up your diet” for International Hot & Spicy Food Day.
These imaginary holidays have become an easy marketing opportunity for restaurants and brands and a crutch for journalists, including myself. I’m as guilty as the next food writer of falling prey to these marketing inventions. And PR people everywhere try to take advantage of the fact that these holidays give the media validation for writing about things they otherwise wouldn’t. After all, who’s really going to devote an entire story to root beer floats unless it’s National Root Beer Float Day?
I don’t know if it’s just my ballooning inbox, but it seems these holidays are multiplying and the hype intensifying. BGR: The Burger Joint and Medium Rare owner Mark Bucher agrees: He hadn’t heard of any food holidays when he opened his burger joint in 2008. “This is all kind of a new proliferation over the last few years that there’s become a day for everything,” he says. “The explosion of Twitter probably has helped them grow.”
Without social media, these days wouldn’t even exist, says The Passenger and Mockingbird Hill co-owner Derek Brown: “Hallmark wouldn’t have been able to print as many cards to make these things official.”
The Passenger has promoted drink specials for National Tequila Day, and Brown admits he was hoping to open his ham and sherry bar, Mockingbird Hill, in time for World Sherry Day—or rather, days—on May 20 to 26. (He was a couple weeks too late.) Meanwhile, BGR has offered free fries for National French Fry Day and hosted a slider-eating competition for National Cheeseburger Day.
“It gives restaurants or retailers a reason to do a fun promotion to get people talking about the brand without coming off as self-promoting,” Bucher says. On National French Fry Day, for example, BGR had lines around the block, and even some TV outlets stopped by. “It keeps you in the public eye.” Medium Rare celebrated National Cherry Pie Day with a cherry pie special. Bucher says people are more likely to buy it on that day, and it gives the restaurant staff a reason to have a conversation with customers.
“In my heart of hearts, I think these days are bullshit,” Brown says, “but they’re still fun every now and then when you find yours. When it’s, like, National Blueberry Pie Day, you’re like, ‘Fuck that, who cares?’ Really, that’s just pointless…Then when it’s Oyster Day or Sherry Day I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s right, everybody celebrate this.’”
Brown suggests that these holidays are primarily the invention of PR people. But ask the PR people, and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you they find out about them from journalists.
“It wasn’t something that was on our radar all the time until people started writing about them,” says Neighborhood Restaurant Group Director of Public Relations Megan Bailey, who reps Birch & Barley, Vermillion, and GBD, among others. “We realized that it was something being covered, and there were obviously people that were paying attention to them.”
Food holidays can translate to a big uptick in business. On National Doughnut Day (June 7), GBD sold more than 800 doughnuts—double what it sells on a normal day. Bailey recalls driving home at 6 p.m. that day when pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac called to tell her she was baking up yet another batch. “Usually by that point, you’re tapering out,” Bailey says.
Still, Neighborhood Restaurant Group is choosy about which food holidays it embraces. It has to fit what the restaurants already offer. National Doughnut Day was a no-brainer, Bailey says, because GBD had just opened, and its specialty is doughnuts. The holiday also can’t be too specific: “There’s probably not so many people passionate about oatmeal cookies as just cookies in general,” Bailey says. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, there is a National Oatmeal Cookie Day—March 18.) Bailey also prefers to wait and see which holidays journalists and diners rally around before the restaurants she works with recognize them.
Two weeks leading up to last Friday’s National Rum Day, Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which is trying to highlight its cocktails and punches at GBD, was approached by rum industry folks about promotions. It turns out that in addition to National Rum Day, there is also Rum Day DC, which lasts for three days (Aug. 16 to 18). While the former has no clear roots, the latter was invented last year by two local rum importers: Team Spirits Imports president Clyde Davis Jr. and Jonathan Peterson, a rep for Atlantico Rum.
The rum duo have no clue where National Rum Day came from or why it’s August 16, but in 2011, they started a rum bar crawl to honor it. The following year, they decided to get more bars and rum brands involved and established Rum Day DC “for the education, further development, and promotion of rum within the spirits industry.” This year, the three-day event included a party bus bar crawl, a “Speakeasy Rum-B-Que” at The Gibson, a poolside punch party at The Liaison Capitol Hill Hotel, and other bar specials around town.
Peterson and Davis say they go to lots of drinking events, but the advantage of Rum Day DC is that it’s specific to their product. “You get to go beyond the everyday clutter of everyday brand experiences,” Davis says. “It’s not, like, a normal ‘sit in a liquor store and do a tasting for three hours.’”
The more attention rum gets from the holiday, they say, the more everybody sells. “Rising tides float all boats,” Peterson says. The marketing gimmick gives smaller brands more exposure, Davis says, and for bigger brands, “a lot of times, it makes them seem more authentic.”
There’s nothing “official” about Rum Day DC other than a website and hashtag, but it turns out that getting the local government to proclaim a holiday is pretty easy.
Mayor Vince Gray recently proclaimed Aug. 12 Clyde’s of Georgetown Day in honor of the restaurant’s 50th anniversary. This year, he’s also recognized three more restaurant holidays: Martin’s Tavern Day (April 3), Jaleo Restaurant Day (April 9), and Millie & Al’s Day (May 8).
But it’s not like the mayor is out there trying to come up with holidays. All a restaurant (or anyone, for that matter) has to do to receive an official proclamation is request one through the Office of the Secretary. The process takes about three weeks and doesn’t cost anything. According to Gray spokesman Matt Desjardins, the office pretty much obliges everyone.
Food and restaurant holidays days may be a joke, but they’re not necessarily bad. Who am I to criticize International Coffee Day if I can get a free cup of joe out of it? And anyone can get behind National Margarita Day as an excuse to order an extra round.
But if only there was at least one day a year when the restaurant-media complex could stop pretending these holidays are real, when we could recognize the fact that we’re all playing into some corporation’s marketing scheme. So, because it’s so easy to create new holidays with no meaning, I’d like to introduce one of my own.
Today is International Food Days Are A Sham Day. Or as I’d prefer to call it, Thursday.