What do a realtor, a wannabe psychologist, a certified sommelier, and a rollerblading server at Sonic Drive-In all have in common?
Don’t expect a corny punchline.
They actually represent distinct elements of Rachel D’Acquisto’s story and have collectively equipped this local hospitality executive for her biggest gig to date. It’s what she calls “a true passion project,” starting a local small business that brews and distributes a hard tea called Ray Ray’s Sonoran Spirit Tea.
But the story began long before she delivered the company’s inaugural keg to her first customer this past July.
With ancestral roots in Sicily, this self-proclaimed “hospitality lifer” has been a fixture on the social scene since she first came to Tucson as a teenager. She and her siblings spent their early childhoods in New York, but her family ended up moving to Tucson to pursue a climate that more closely mirrored that of Southern Italy.
“My family was part of the big influx of Italians that settled in Tucson,” she said, “partly because the weather here is much like Sicily which is where my grandparents, aunts, and uncles are from.”
D’Acquisto excelled at soccer as a student at Mountain View High School on the northwest side. She played on several school and club teams prior to landing her first job in the hospitality industry, a skating server at Sonic. That her footwork on the soccer field helped her to thrive in the workplace is a notion that simply can’t be disputed.
“I loved the high volume of that job, and people were really impressed by my ability to simultaneously rollerblade and serve food,” she remembered.
College seemed like the right course for her with both parents in the teaching profession. So she traded in her rollerblades for academic coursework at Pima Community College that would align with changing career paths, from psychology, to interior design, to business.
“I respect teachers immensely, and I value education, but I didn’t have a straight line through my college experience, and I bounced around a lot,” she said.
As she was preparing to transfer to the University of Arizona to complete her studies, D’Acquisto got “distracted” by an opportunity in Phoenix to pursue what ended up being “a short and wild career” as a real estate agent during the industry boom in the mid-2000s.
Her passion for hospitality had only deepened at that point, and D’Acquisto ultimately answered a call to relocate to Oakland, California to work at Luka’s Tap Room and Franklin Square Wine Bar, two concepts owned by a couple that would earn the title of mentors during her eight-year stint.
“They taught me everything I know and gave me the confidence to do what I do, and I was able to grow from server to general manager,” she said. “They even supported me with my sommelier certification, and I was able to study in San Francisco with master sommeliers.”
It was during this time when D’Acquisto re-connected with her best friend from high school who was also living in the Bay Area. They were later pronounced husband and wife and decided that Tucson, where their families were and where they soon would start a family of their own, was where they belonged.
She quickly dropped back into the Tucson hospitality scene, serving as general manager of downtown’s Playground Bar & Lounge as well as hosting cocktail classes and consulting to local bars. And this was the time when the idea of starting her own beverage-making business first took root.
“I was interested in ready-to-drink canned cocktails and I experienced a phenomenon at Playground that batched cocktails could contend with well-known, classic cocktails,” she said. “That was very unusual for me, and it sparked the idea that there’s a space to do ready-to-drink craft cocktails in Tucson.”
She admitted that she had a steep learning curve. She knew the spirits business but she lacked the requisite knowledge about things like licensing, labeling, chemistry, shelf stability, and legal matters to launch her own spirits company.
One of the people to whom she first reached out was Rebecca Safford, owner of Tap & Bottle, who D’Acquisto calls an “accessible hero.”
“Among the most profound pieces of advice that I got from Rebecca was that ‘people are nicer than you think,’ and that I needed to reach out to people who I thought could offer advice to me in these areas,” she said. “Even if it’s a cold call or e-mail, Rebecca said I’d be surprised by just how many people would actually respond.”
And respond they did. She was able to connect with Startup Tucson, a non-profit advocate for local entrepreneurs, and made it her mission to learn all the things she didn’t know about starting a business.
All of the pieces sequentially fell into place and Ray Ray’s Sonoran Spirit Tea was born.
D’Acquisto landed on hard tea as her offering after “a lot of leisure drinking” to keep her finger on the pulse of what was happening in the beverage environment.
“I wanted to create a drink that people loved, a drink that would be a part of good times and great experiences, where, honestly, wonderful memories would be made,” she said. “I started with a tea-based cocktail that I used to love making at Playground and just brought it down to basics.”
Another criterion for D’Acquisto’s hard tea was that it needed to be relatively low in alcohol, along with gluten-free and sugar-free, to minimize its “one and done” potential.
At 100 calories and 4.5 percent ABV, Ray Ray’s Sonoran Spirit Tea is made with a proprietary blend of hibiscus and black teas, vodka, tequila, lemon and watermelon extracts, and a touch of agave sweetener. This recipe reportedly makes her hard tea a good fit for people with certain dietary restrictions, namely those with gluten intolerance and blood sugar issues.
“I wanted it to have broad appeal for a lot of reasons,” she said. “It was an intentional goal of mine to reduce the awkward bar conversations about limitations by offering a drink that people with different types of restrictions could worry less about.”
For D’Acquisto, the perfect backdrop for enjoying Ray Ray’s is “in a social setting, with people who aren’t on a mission to over-imbibe, on a patio or poolside, with sun on your face.” Though the pool part might be difficult until her canned version arrives early next year, there are several social settings across town, with patios, where her hard tea can be enjoyed on tap.
Among her current customers are BOCA by Chef Maria Mazon, Fini’s Landing, John Henry’s, Little Mexico Steakhouse, Monsoons Tap & Grill, Saint Charles Tavern, Union Public House, and many others.
She’s adding even more to the roster on a seemingly daily basis. In fact, her most recent production, at a facility that she shares with Thunder Canyon Brewery, yielded nearly 200 gallons of the tea that ended up in almost 40 five-gallon kegs that she and her family are distributing to restaurants and bars with decidedly thirsty patrons. That’s quite a spike in the five months since her first five-gallon order was delivered to the Rialto Theatre’s R Bar back in July.
As we were wrapping up our conversation, I imagined that the role of Rachel D’Acquisto in a film adaptation of her life would almost certainly be played by Academy Award-winning actress Marisa Tomei. They were both born in Brooklyn, they both have family roots in Sicily, and both of their mothers were teachers.
I didn’t ask if D’Acquisto has a Cousin Vinny, but I’d suggest that a scene with Tomei hoisting poolside pints of Ray Ray’s, with sun on her face, would alone be Oscar-worthy.
Matt Russell has been a food and beverage writer/broadcaster covering stories in Arizona and beyond since 2009. He’s been the food and beverage writer for Inside Tucson Business for the past decade and is a regular contributor to Tucson Foodie...