As much as food menus have had to transform throughout the pandemic, beverage menus have felt pressure to change too. You may have noticed changes in your customers’ beverage-buying habits in recent months: A downturn in classic coffee purchases from people who would normally stop by on their daily commute to work, or a dip in soft drink sales now that groups who used to order a couple of rounds of drinks over a meal in your dining room are finding their beverages at home. But beverages can still be money makers for restaurants – your menu may just need to shift to accommodate the current environment. First, make it special by offering people something they wouldn’t find at home, from coffees and herbal teas with seasonal flavors, to nutrient-dense smoothies, to fruity kombuchas. If you’re selling meal bundles this winter, don’t forget to build in a special beverage option to complement the flavors in the meal: Suggest a wine for each bundle (and explain why it’s a good fit) or offer a non-alcoholic fizzy drink like a sparkling cider or mocktail to make it more worthwhile for a customer to include beverages in their order. As people continue to work from home, their mid-afternoon breaks have also taken on new importance – and beverages can help there too. Offer a snack/appetizer and beverage pairing as an afternoon pick-me-up: Going out for gourmet hot chocolate and popcorn, a pot of tea and scones, or an Italian coffee and cheese board feels more worthwhile than making a special trip for a latte you can easily prep at home. If you’re known for your specialty cocktails, you can even put together a simple kit to help a customer enjoy a special Zoom happy hour on a Thursday evening.
Like the proteins you offer on your menu, your milk options may be evolving too. Whether from dietary intolerances or growing ethical awareness, consumers are turning away from cow’s milk – or are at least open to plant-based alternatives. A Cargill survey found that as many as half of U.S. dairy consumers also consume plant-based alternatives – with nearly half of respondents believing a balanced diet doesn’t need dairy. But vegetarian milk options – which currently range from soy to coconut to almond to oat and beyond – aren’t without their problems. If your clientele is environmentally conscious, consider this report from The Guardian, which provides a rundown of the pros and cons of the plant-based milks widely available now – with oat milk coming out on top.
Wouldn’t it be great to know what your guests will want to eat and drink not just next month or next season, but for the next two years? A recent Technomic forecast can tell you. The company has a menu predictive tool that includes machine learning, social listening tools and historical menu trends designed to map out consumer taste predictions for the next two years. Five items rose to the top: Is there a place for any of them on your menu? Two fiery sauces, Nashville hot and gochujang, will likely become widespread on menus in the coming months and years, according to Technomic’s findings. Nashville hot is a cayenne-based sauce that is associated with fried chicken – though the coming months may bring new applications. Gochujang, the Korean sauce made from fermented soybeans, dried chilies and garlic, manages to be spicy, salty and sweet. There were three beverages flagged for their anticipated rise in popularity: Ginger beer, Shochu and Mezcal. Ginger beer, which is made by fermenting ginger, yeast and sugar, is often non-alcoholic but has versatility as a mixer with alcoholic beverages. Shochu, the Japanese alcoholic beverage that can be made from ingredients as varied as sweet potatoes and barley, has a stronger taste than sake. Mezcal, a tequila relative, has a smoky flavor that is rising in popularity in both sweet and savory applications (one Washington, D.C. restaurant carries 35 varieties of the beverage).
At a time when sugar continues to be in the crosshairs when it comes to the American diet, sugary drinks are becoming not only more plentiful at large restaurant chains but also sweeter. That’s according to new research from Harvard that was recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The research, based on the analysis of beverage offerings available at 63 quick-service, fast-casual and full-service brands between 2012 and 2017, found that the number of sugary drinks climbed by 82 percent. Further, the sweetness of drinks increased too: Among newly introduced sugary beverages including sodas, fruit drinks and sports drinks, the number of calories per drink increased by 50 and the average amount of sugar reached 63 grams, approximately double the American Heart Association’s recommended daily sugar threshold. Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and warnings from medical associations are creating downward pressure on sugar levels in the beverage industry, but in the meantime, restaurants have an important role to fill in providing flavorful drinks that don’t pile on the extra sugar. Think craft seltzers, fruit-infused waters, herbal teas and kombuchas as stand-alone options or extra ingredients that can add interest (but not all of the sugar) to your beverage lineup.
June is National Iced Tea Month – and a prime time to make the most of a beverage in the midst of a renaissance. While tea has traditionally been considered a comforting beverage, modern drinkers like its wellness benefits, as well as the many dozens of tastes it can add to a menu. Ice it and serve blended or garnished with summer fruit, combine it with almond or oat milk in a cool matcha latte, or experiment with health-focused ingredients like ginger, turmeric and ginseng. The plant-forward trend has come to the tea category too: Mintel reports that some tea companies are more prominently promoting produce in their infusions. Ingredients ranging from basil to onion to tomato are appearing in teas.
The powerful Gen Y and Z consumer loves to eat restaurant food but is less enthusiastic when it comes to alcohol. (Case in point: The “juice crawl” is becoming a popular alternative to the bar crawl in major cities.) This is actually a big opportunity for your beverage menu to profit with lower-overhead options that incorporate on-trend flavors and health-conscious ingredients. Cake suggests using floral and spicy flavors like lavender and ginger to bring creative twists to traditional drinks. A survey of 16-24 year olds conducted by the thinktank Demos found that health was the most common reason why young people are drinking less, so take that into account. In addition to using more fresh produce in your drinks, accommodate dietary restrictions by limiting sugar — for sweet alternatives, try stevia, agave or honey — and offering a variety of nondairy options for those looking to limit lactose and excess fat.