There’s nothing elegant about drinking out of a plastic sandwich bag, but at Frita Batidos, a Latin American-influenced restaurant in Michigan, customers choose to do just that. The plastic sags with the weight of the non-boozy, spicy, yellow ginger-lime juice, which is chilled by big ice cubes. Two corners of the bag twist around the outside of the straw, precariously holding the package together. Sweat collects on the slightly sticky exterior of the bag and drips onto the white picnic table. The cold feel of the pouch and zingy flavor could be refreshing in the summer, but on a gray and windy fall day in Detroit, it’s a bit soggy.
The crisp ginger-lime juice is an outlier among Frita’s drinks, which include creamy tropical flavored milkshakes poured into compostable cups and sangria-filled fishbowls. The bagged drink is regularly outshined by these popular beverages, yet it’s held its place on the menu since Frita’s inception nine years ago, introducing guests to an alternative style of drink packaging.
While drinking out of a bag might feel wrong to some American consumers, elsewhere in the world, it’s a completely ordinary experience. From Asia to South America, disposable bags are a common method for dispensing takeout drinks. In countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, everything from coffee to soup is ladeled into these so-called tapao or da bao bags (the term for takeout), fixed with straws and usually some sort of brightly colored strap that can wrap around the bag’s circumference to seal off the top or serve as a handle. It’s such an iconic container in Singapore that one company even sells a giant reusable bag inspired by the coffee pouch. People familiar with tapao bags point out that the strap makes it easier to carry a beverage with a finger while lugging around other bags. It’s also useful for hanging a beverage off the handlebar of a motorcycle or hooking it over a rearview mirror. Cup holders be damned! In other countries, such as Nicaragua and Mexico, a street vendor selling aguas frescas might seal off portions of the bag’s opening using a rubber band, or they might simply tie off the top of the bag around a straw.
Unsurprisingly, cost is a chief driver in the proliferation of bagged drinks: Plastic bags are generally cheaper than heavy-duty plastic containers or paper cups, and in some cases serve as a replacement vessel for plastic and glass bottles. In countries like El Salvador and the Philippines, where glass bottled drinks are more common, customers often don’t want to pay extra for a bottle deposit; instead, vendors hold onto bottles to trade in to the manufacturer for reuse, and pour the bottled beverage into a bag. The practice is so common that a convincing fake video circled the internet in 2012 suggesting that Coca-Cola would start selling bottle-shaped bags of soda to reinforce its brand. Other places simply adopted the bags out of convenience. The city of Qingdao in China’s Shandong province, for example, is widely known for its colonial German-influenced Tsingtao beer culture. Families at one time used pots and pans to purchase bulk beer from vendors, but in the 1980s began using lighter-weight plastic grocery bags with the Tsingtao label to transport their beer instead. More recently, the plastic-bag format has given way in some cases to trendy pouches with thicker walls, a Ziplock-style seal at the top, and flat bottoms that keep the container upright like a cup. Now, slowly but surely, restaurants, bars, and cafes across the U.S. are adopting pouches and bags as a way to set themselves apart and create memorable drinks.
Frita Batidos owner and chef Eve Aronoff says she became acquainted with the bagged plastic drinks on a trip to Honduras ahead of the opening of the original Frita Batidos in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She and several of her staff members were visiting the country to learn about coffee as part of a coffee program that never came to be. After stepping off the plane, the group’s first stop was a roadside stand where they ordered fresh-pressed sugar cane juice with a wedge of lime served in a bag. “The people were so warm, and it was so delicious, and it was just a really special feeling arriving there,” she recalls. The visit to Honduras was an emotional one for the Frita Batidos team. The group worked together with an organization building clean stoves for families that faced health issues due to open-fire cooking. Aronoff also seriously injured her back on the trip, and has received ongoing treatment for it ever since. But despite the challenges, the group wanted to preserve the memory of their travels and experiences. The ginger-lime juice in a bag was one way to do that.
Aronoff says that from time to time, customers are “taken aback by it,” but for others it’s nostalgic. “Some people have experienced that in their travels, so it brings up nice memories for them, too, and for other people, it’s a part of their culture,” she says.
For many people living in Europe and the United States, it’s difficult to fathom why someone would trade a perfectly functional disposable cup and lid for a beverage served in a thin sheath of plastic. Plastic bags — unless securely sealed like a Ziplock baggie — are generally reserved for non-liquid items like sandwiches or groceries. Carryout liquids such as coffee or soup are instead stored in robust plastic or paper cups and quart containers with a bottom that’s flat for setting on a counter, in a cup holder, or the floor of one’s car. Thin sheets of plastic also aren’t the best method of insulation, which means hot drinks may lose their heat more quickly and perhaps, in some circumstances, melt the bag itself.
All that being said, Westerners aren’t entirely unfamiliar with drinks in bags. The bag-in-a-box was invented in the 1950s as a safe, affordable way to ship and store liquids ranging from battery acid to wine. The same “bladder” technology is used to refill commercial soda machines and dispense milk in cafeterias. Similarly, almost any kid who grew up after the 1970s remembers the Capri Sun pouch, a plastic and aluminum foil invention that while nearly impossible to recycle is touted by the company as durable and lighter in weight than plastic bottles. Other products in the grocery aisles now seem to be taking cues from the Capri Sun packaging. Children’s beverage brand Honest Kids sells juice in pouches, while brands such as Mott’s and GoGo Squeez store single servings of applesauce and yogurt in plastic tubes. Alcohol brands such as Daily’s Cocktails feature pre-packaged cocktails in sealed pouches that customers are encouraged to freeze and then drink slushy-style, right from the bag with a straw.
Plastic bag drinks have also been catching on in bars and cafes. On the popular Reddit forum r/wewantcups, where users go to ogle unconventional drinking vessels, cocktails served in plastic bags have emerged as a leading category for posts, alongside miniature bathtubs and beakers. The drinks vary in terms of their fidelity to the conventional street-vendor packaging. At a bar in Belgium, for instance, a clear plastic gift bag cocktail is cinched with a piece of raffia and a sprig of green garnish is stuffed into the top. At Sidebar in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a bright blue drink called the Beta Fish is served in a plastic bag with a blue twist tie. The Mockingbird, a trendy restaurant in Nashville, is well known for a $12 boozy fruit-punch drink called the Punchin’ Bag, served in, you guessed it, a plastic bag. And at Philadelphia’s bizarre apocalypse-themed restaurant Mad Rex, the sandwich bag gave way to drinks served in IV bags. Others, such as New York’s Malaysian restaurant Kopitiam, Toronto-based Thai cafe pop-up Nam Wan, and bubble tea shop Royal I.T. Cafe in Dallas, have gone the more modern route with clear, thick-walled pouches as drink vessels.
For some of these establishments, the plastic bag appears to be a play for Instagram likes, but for others it’s meant to connect customers to different cultures in ways that go beyond serving international cuisine. Thursday Kitchen, a Korean restaurant in New York, has seen the benefits of creatively packaged drinks. The restaurant’s soju pouch cocktails served with LED lights inside are an Instagram sensation. Restaurant partner Bernard Kim estimates that Thursday Kitchen sells between 200 and 300 of the pouch drinks on an average night, but stresses that the drinks are more than a photo op — they’re also nostalgic. “People love the idea of the Capri Suns, and we just kept emphasizing the idea that it is okay to be a child and a grown-up,” he says.
Thursday Kitchen’s partners looked to Korea when coming up with the idea for the packaging, which they hoped would stand out from conventional glassware. In Korea, Kim points out, it’s legal to drink on the street, and as a result, many vendors serve takeaway bags filled with everything from wine to soju to beer. The carryout cocktail pouches are “like a cool juice box in the summertime,” he says. Thursday Kitchen wanted to bring the spirit of that relaxed Korean drinking culture to New York, though Kim points out that occasionally customers feel a bit too relaxed. He sometimes has to remind customers not to leave the restaurant with their cocktail pouch. “They walk out with these bags, because they’re not holding glassware,” he says. “It’s almost as though they’re holding souvenir cups from a Six Flags trip.”
Since the restaurant’s debut in 2016, Kim has observed other restaurants in the city introducing similar bagged drinks. In a way, he sees that trend as a natural progression: As businesses in the U.S. seek a new way to distinguish themselves from the crowd, they turn to older trends elsewhere in the world. “We’re bringing back a trend that has already existed in a different country, [but we are] just introducing it to the U.S.,” he says.