Dr. Anthony Fauci’s face is everywhere, which explains why it popped into Rohit Malhotra’s head. As the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease, Fauci endeared himself to the public early on in the COVID-19 pandemic with his heavy Brooklyn accent, unassuming physique, and straight talk on the novel coronavirus. Over the past seven months, he has become a household name, a frequent guest on primetime news shows, inevitable meme fodder, and — thanks to Malhotra and his staff — the unwitting logo for a line of pouched cocktails that helped a Washington, D.C., bar stay open through a public health crisis that has been catastrophic for restaurants.
Malhotra is the beverage director at Capo Italian Deli, a bar-deli combo in D.C.’s bustling Shaw neighborhood. At first sight, it’s a simple Italian sub shop with black-and-white vinyl flooring and deli meats behind glass. But through a steel freezer door in the back is the speakeasy where Malhotra came up with the pouches.
When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered a dine-in ban in mid-March, Capo’s sandwich counter was positioned well for takeout, but Malhotra scrambled to come up with to-go options from the bar. The first wave of takeout and delivery cocktails referenced the desperate early days of quarantine with names like Zoom Party and Tiger King. “We just tried to go off what was popular at the time,” Malhotra says. In late March, the bar received a shipment of cocktail pouches. And Malhotra began brainstorming what to do with them.
“I’m like, pouches, pouches, couches, pouchy — Fauci Pouchy, oh my God, that’s it,” Malhotra says.
By then, Fauci — pronounced “Fow-chee” — had launched into the public eye, not just for his calm advice and assurances during the pandemic, but for acting as a level-headed foil to President Donald Trump. In a particularly memorable White House briefing that inspired a thousand memes, Fauci was caught slapping his palm over his face after the president began ranting about the “Deep State Department.”
“I figured [Fauci’s] the one that was gonna get us out there,” Malhotra says. He was right.
A Fauci Pouchy is basically an adult Capri Sun. The cocktails come in plastic drink pouches, printed with a black-and-white photo of Fauci in his doctor’s coat. Each $14 pouch holds 14 ounces of liquid, or two drinks. The original mix was a literal example of turning lemons into lemonade.
“Right when we got shut down, we still had our citrus in stock,” Malhotra says. Capo employees started turning the lemons into mint lemonade to sell. “I tried it and said, ‘You know what would make them so much better? Vodka and elderflower.’”
The OG pouches, which came out March 25, contain vodka, mint lemonade, elderflower, and grapefruit. Capo has since added various flavors, from an espresso martini to a passionfruit margarita. Malhotra says the cocktails were based on whatever the bar had in stock.
“We had Maker’s Mark, so we said, ‘Let’s make a sweet tea with a little bit of peach,’” he says. “We started coming up with some flavors like the strawberry lemonade and then the painkiller, fun things like that.”
Sales built slowly at first, with the deli moving a couple hundred in a week. But then people began to take notice. Sales skyrocketed.
“When people saw them, they would just start laughing,” Malhotra says. “They’re just like, ‘Oh, that’s cute. I like that.’ And, I mean, given practically everything that was going on at that time, I think people were just looking for a little bit of respite from the normal.”
The pouches began to gain traction on social media, particularly Instagram, where the hashtag #FauciPouchy took off with photos of people toting their pouches down the street or sipping them in their homes.
In mid-April, Washingtonian reported that the bar was selling more than 300 pouches on Saturday nights. Malhotra didn’t want to divulge specific numbers to Eater, but he says the pouches have kept Capo afloat to the point where it has largely shifted its business model to focus on selling as many pouches as possible. He says the peak of sales ran from mid-April to mid-May, when news outlets began to take notice and people flocked to the bar to try a pouch. Since then, sales have leveled out, which the bar partially attributes to D.C. moving into its second phase of its reopening protocol. The return of indoor seating on June 22 has given customers more options, albeit at limited capacity.
“It’s nothing like if we were open on a Friday and Saturday night here, but it’s kept us alive for the most part,” Malhotra says. “Given the state of affairs, we’re happy with that.”
As 2020 has become more chaotic, the pouches have adapted to the times.
When the United States Postal Service funding crisis captured national interest, Capo Deli created a USPS-themed Fauci Pouchy, complete with a print of Dr. Fauci dressed as a mailman. It was made up of Don Q rum, campari, vanilla, pineapple, and lime. The first 100 people to order received a prestamped postcard.
When Fauci, a devoted Washington Nationals Fan, threw the first pitch at a home opener held without fans in the stands, Capo offered a limited First Pitch Fauci, made of vodka, blue Curacao, blueberry syrup, white cranberry, and mint.
The pouches’ fanbase is mainly people in their 20s and 30s, but Malhotra says he has observed a wide range of customers. People even drive in from Maryland and Virginia for a pouch, he says.
Why spend $14 on a cocktail pouch with Fauci’s likeness on it?
Malhotra thinks the pouches speak to the wonky subculture in a town where politics often serve as a competitive sport and where a special brand of Capitol Hill bro spends weeknights at networking events. This isn’t the first time a D.C. bar has seized on a political moment through drink specials. In the past, bars have offered cheekily named beverages on election night or drink discounts every time a Trump administration official is sacked. Malhotra envisions pouchy drinkers as consultants, lawyers, and even tech people.
“It captures what people are doing for a living, and they’re kind of drawn to it,” Malhotra theorizes. Parts of the D.C. area have served as a backdrop for major developments during the pandemic as the National Institutes of Health and hospitals in the area work on vaccine trials.
Malhotra also says the pouches bring some light to a time when people are worried about their health, their job security, and their finances.
“People are very scared of what’s going to happen next,” Malhotra says. “And so by introducing, you know, something like this, it kind of breaks up the monotony.”
As the pouches gained traction, Malhotra admits he was worried about using Fauci’s likeness. In 2018, a Rick and Morty-themed bar blocks away from Capo Deli was shut down when Turner Broadcasting threatened a lawsuit for stealing intellectual property.
But the NIH never came knocking. When asked if Fauci himself could comment on the cocktail pouches, a spokesperson for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said he was too busy with other media requests and, of course, tackling a pandemic. But there is a small hint as to what the public health expert thinks about them.
“There’s a bar or restaurant on U Street that has created a Fauci Pouchy,” Zimmerman said. Fauci cracked a smile. “It’s, like, an adult Capri Sun. I’m going to take you haven’t had one, but there’s a lemonade, sweet tea, or a strawberry flavor. Which one would you pick if you had to pick?”
Laughing, Fauci responded: “I’d pick lemonade, for sure.”