In many places around the world, the snow is thawing and the sun has emerged, which means spring menus are upon us. And embracing the trendiest flavors via beverages is one easy way for restaurants to boost check spend. Those trends, according to Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, are a return to historical, more familiar flavors with a focus on healthful options.
"There's been so much unrest since the election and a lack of confidence and a feeling of being unsettled with the school shootings, hurricanes, fires in California, the Russian investigation," she said. "It's not a recession, so we're not yet back in full-blown comfort food, but we are in a stall and that means a return to more historic ties."
Consumers, for example, want to feel settled, so they order what they know. They'll choose familiar bases — floral and black tea, lattes and lemonade — but since the economy hasn't tanked, they are still open to adding in more unique spices or flavors to make it a bit more interesting, Badaracco said.
Those add-ins, this season, include charcoal, infused ice cubes, whole herbs, bitters, coconut milk, varietal vanilla, hemp/chia, smoke and cocoa nibs.
"Teas are a calming source, but the sexy part comes in the add-ons," she said. "It's an interesting place because you can easily screw it up. Like someone could do a global, crazy drink but put cinnamon in it, and that would make no sense. That would freak people out. They wouldn't order that."
I'll drink (healthy) to that
Since a stall pattern inspires people to seek healthier menu options, consumers are more mindful about what they are drinking — whether it's drinking alcohol with more moderation or choosing lower-calorie or no-sugar-added drinks.
"The best option would be to have natural sweeteners when possible or some of the hybrid sweeteners that combine sugar with a non-caloric sweetener to lower-cals overall," Badaracco said.
Diet carbonated soft drinks, however, are down at restaurants, said Warren Solochek, president of foodservice practice at The NPD Group.
"It appears consumers are moving away from high-fructose corn syrup to other beverages in an attempt to drink 'healthier' alternatives," he said. "This is also why bottled water consumption is up at home in the same way it is up at restaurants."
Nekter Juice Bar CEO Steve Schulze agreed, saying his California-based chain is seeing younger guests showing a growing curiosity around new flavors and ingredients with functional health benefits.
"We recently amped up our lineup of cold-pressed bottled juices and juice cleanses with a very curated selection of superfoods, herbs, prebiotics and probiotics. Even the younger generations — teens and young adults — are asking very valid questions around our new ingredients, such as Ashwaganda and Camu Camu, two powerful superfoods that have tremendous health benefits."
Nekter is on the right track, Badaracco said, referring to her research that found that restaurants wanting to increase check spend through beverages should add cold-pressed juice and other health-based drinks.
"We don't see this trend slowing down anytime soon," Schulze said. "But the key to success in introducing this new wave of superfood ingredients is to find the perfect balance between nutrition and flavor. At the end of the day, if it isn't delicious, we've missed the opportunity to increase trial and repeated sales."
Along with healthful options, NPD's research also found that over the past two years, hot specialty coffee, iced specialty coffee, lemonade, flavored iced tea, bottled water, lemon-lime carbonated soft drinks and energy drinks have seen the most growth at restaurants.
"It looks like people still prefer to go to restaurants/coffee shops for espresso-based beverages," he Solochek said. "I am confident this is because of the multiple variations that can be made at specialty coffee shops that are so hard to make at home."
Speaking of coffee and tea...
Coffee and tea are both trending up and will be even more popular at restaurants this spring, Badaracco said. Adding unique flavors and embracing nitro and cold brew options should be in most restaurants' plans. Cold brew coffee sales rose 450 percent in two years, according to Mintel research.
Starbucks, for example, now offers cold-pressed espresso at the Seattle Roastery. Its Sparkling Cold-Pressed Americano is made from a shot of cold-pressed espresso poured over sparkling water and served on ice. Starbucks also has a tasting flight that comes with a cold-pressed Americano, one traditional Iced Americano and one Sparkling Cold-Pressed Americano. Additionally, it is serving a Cold-Pressed Ginger Fizz featuring ginger ale and a shot of cold-pressed espresso poured over vanilla syrup and finished with grapefruit bitters.
Learning from retail trends
One way for restaurants to predict consumer desires is by taking note of what beverage manufacturers and retailers are offering, Badaracco said.
The Coffee Blenders newest line, for example, features 100-percent Arabica dark roast Honduran coffee blended with nutraceuticals. Also, Its parent company, NuZee, is launching a line of ready-to-drink gourmet and functional cold-brew coffees blending dark roast Honduran coffee with clinically supported nutraceuticals designed to provide health benefits. Varieties include Lean (weight loss), Think (cognitive performance) and Relax (stress reduction).