Consumers are clamoring for freshly squeezed, cold pressed, carbonated, on-the-rocks drinks that slake their thirst for creative twists on the usual beverage choices. The beverage industry has been awash with new recipes, concepts and serving ideas. Smart operators are moving their drink offerings front-and-center and enjoying the boost in sales and profits from this typically high-margin section of the menu.
One of the bubbliest trends is the increased penchant for carbonating just about any still liquid, says Suzy Badaracco, president, Culinary Tides, a food industry trends forecaster. It’s a trend that she ties to stock market performance, surprisingly enough. “There’s a significant pattern of carbonation consumption increasing during economic recoveries,” she says. These days, though, there are many more choices than champagne or seltzer. “Carbonation is appearing in iced coffee, coffee tonics and sparkling teas. While these drinks are certainly showing up in retail, they are also something that operators can make right on premise.”
Badaracco says that add-ins and mixers are also making a big play in the beverage sector. “We’re seeing lots of infused drinks, and those in which smoked flavors are added, as well as unique standouts like shaped ice.” Add-ins can turn a simple cocktail like a Bloody Mary into a mini-meal that comes with a kitchen sink’s worth of garnishes. “My wife is engaged in a lifelong quest to find the best Bloody Mary, so I’ve sampled many of them,” says Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a food industry research and consultancy firm. “One of the most interesting ones I’ve seen recently came with the garnish of a grilled hamburger slider, stuck on a swizzle stick.”
Potent potable trends include upswings in sales of beer, cider and a new category called hard soda. “It’s really just making its debut, but gaining in interest and popularity,” Badaracco says. She points to Henry’s Hard Soda from MillerCoors and Best Damn Root Beer, produced by Small Town Brewery and distributed nationally by Pabst. “It’s delish,” she says, “like root beer, but with a kick.”
There is significant growth in the non-alcoholic sector, as well. “Coconut milk is climbing in popularity and is increasingly being offered in coffee shops,” she says. “Plant waters, with flavors like aloe, maple and cactus are also making appearances. Vegetable-based sodas, which typically have much less sugar and feature unusual flavors, are also gaining ground.” Badaracco points to the success of Seattle-based Dry Soda, which sells low-sugar sodas in flavors including lavender, rhubarb and cucumber.
For operators who want to expand their menus to include a wider and more upscale beverage offering, Badaracco says that starting with an interesting new flavor or add-in can be a good entry point. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she says. “Look at what’s trending right now and pick one or two areas that might be easy to incorporate right away, and you can grow from there.”