How Crystal Meth Saved Albuquerque: The Draw of 'Breaking Bad'
AMC's hit meth drama turned New Mexico's Albuquerque into a tourist hot spot with tours, breweries and even a "Bathing Bad" day spa drawing superfans to the city.
Before Breaking Bad, Albuquerque was Native American art, retirement homes and maybe a hot-air balloon ride. Before Breaking Bad, the sprawling, high-desert city never saw organized trolley tours, lines at doughnut shops or bags of "meth" candy sold by the thousands. Before Breaking Bad, everyone who traveled to New Mexico went to Santa Fe.
Ultimately, nothing in the history of Albuquerque — founded in 1706 by Spanish settlers — has put the city on the map like Breaking Bad. Not only does Breaking Bad (which is both filmed and set there) intimately highlight Albuquerque's local culture, lifestyle and institutions, but the cast and crew will be quick to agree that Albuquerque is a main character in the show.
The Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau website now gets significant traffic specific to Breaking Bad searches, so much that the show received its own portal. Die-hard Bad fans have been flocking to Albuquerque in droves, some arriving via new direct flights on American Airlines from Chicago and JetBlue from NYC. Both routes launched just this past year as AMC was promoting the hell out of Breaking Bad's current and final season.
Everything and anything in Albuquerque is seemingly Breaking Bad related, especially when it comes to local commerce. Seemingly every storefront window is full of Breaking Bad paraphernalia. In fact, some businesses have seen their profits skyrocket as a result of their Breaking Bad-themed products. Debbie Ball, owner of the The Candy Lady and creator of the "crystal meth" used for the show's first two seasons, sells little baggies of blue-dyed rock sugar for a buck. She can thank Bryan Cranston, who gave David Letterman a bag of the candy on his show in 2012. That moment spurred the idea of capitalizing on her Breaking Bad-themed confection. "About 20 to 30 percent of sales are Breaking Bad related," Ball says. "Our store plateaued for a while, and a year ago we could have shut down." Now, Ball can sell up to 5,000 bags a week, in addition to upward of 300 Breaking Bad T-shirts. Breaking Bad broke good with The Candy Lady, who's since gone on to launch a Breaking Bad limo tour -- though that hasn't been as big a hit as her candy.
It's likely because Breaking Bad fans are hopping aboard ABQ Trolley Company's three-hour The BaD Tour, launched last July. Run by two young 30-something locals, the trolley tour takes fans to several locations that feature in the show, including Jessie's house, the car wash Walt worked at and the Crossroads Motel.
Routes Bicycle Rentals & Tours launched not one but five Biking Bad tours, each one specific to a main character (i.e., the Jessie Pinkman Tour). The groups are smaller, and it's perhaps the best way to see stops up close, like the top of the parking garage where a pivotal scene involving Walt took place in the current season.
There also are more Bad-themed ingestibles to be had around town. Marble Brewery created two special beers dedicated to Breaking Bad: Walt's White Lie, an India White Ale, and Heisenberg's Dark, an India Black Ale. They both sold out within four days of their debut.
Even doughnuts are giving Breaking Bad love. Rebel Donut opened in June 2012, but business didn't thrive until they launched the Breaking Bad-themed Blue Sky doughnut. When the show premiered, sales trumped Valentine's Day, normally their most profitable day.
But Albuquerque's Breaking Bad obsession goes beyond tours and food. For one, there's Great Face & Body, a day spa that launched Bathing Bad bath salts. A section of the store also is set up like a chemistry lab (loosely modeled after this season's print campaign) for photo ops. According to co-owner Keith West-Harrison, "We sold 12 bags of 'meth' before we even actually made a bag." Retailing for $15.99 per bag, up to 3,000 bags of bath salts are sold a month. You do the math.
Hot-air balloon companies have tried to get in on the action, too. A crew member at Rainbow Ryders Inc. told THR that they have considered a Breaking Bad hot-air balloon tour, floating over key spots, but the wind is too unpredictable on any given day.
Many Breaking Bad entrepreneurs are, like Walter White, planning for the inevitable. "After the last episode of Breaking Bad airs and syndication runs its course, interest in the show will no doubt plateau," says Heather Arnold, co-owner of Routes Rentals. Ted Rice, owner of Marble Brewery, says: "I have no plans on making those beers ever again. It was fun, but not really a wave I need to ride."
But others still see a glimmer of hope. West-Harrison of Great Face & Body says, "I think the end of the show is actually just the beginning for tourism. In fact they are still offering bus tours in New Jersey based on The Sopranos locations, and that show ended in 2006."
Whether Breaking Bad prospers or not, Albuquerque will have something notable to add to its history.
WHERE TO STAY:
A 107-room boutique conveniently located downtown with Hollywood ties: Robert Redford has stayed on many occasions (his wife's work can be seen displayed in the mezzanine gallery). Ten Years with Channing Tatum was filmed here, and the hotel was home to Vanity Fair's recent Breaking Bad photo shoot with the cast. Rates from $159.
A chic and intimate, one-room resort where affluent visitors can truly escape. Forty minutes from Albuquerque, Desert Harbor is surrounded by breathtaking natural landscape and also offers life coaching and farm-to-table meals. Rates from $149.