Realizing that healthier beverages are potent sales and traffic drivers, a growing number of restaurant operators are enhancing their selection of waters, iced teas, lemonades and juices, just as they have done with their foods.
Clearly, better-for-you menu offerings strike a chord with consumers today. Four of the top five trendiest nonalcoholic beverages in the National Restaurant Association’s 2016 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast are perceived as healthier than heavily sugared sodas — housemade/artisan soft drinks, gourmet lemonades, specialty iced tea and coconut water. Flavored and enhanced waters also ranked prominently in the forecast — they were cited as a hot trend by 40 percent of survey respondents. In addition, a 2014 Technomic study reported that 44 percent of consumers seek healthier beverages in restaurants, up from 39 percent in 2012. And when Datassential recently surveyed consumers about their attitudes on health, 70 percent said they would pay more for healthful foods and ingredients.
In light of findings like these, better-for-you beverages are among the most attractive menu items operators can promote to get patrons in the door and encourage them to buy a beverage rather than ask for free water. No one is more aware of that than the operators who have been ahead of the curve, showcasing lighter, more healthful refreshers well before patrons started clamoring for them.
At Fresh To Order, a 15-unit, Atlanta-based “fast-fine” restaurant chain founded in 2005, guests visit a signature beverage station with a half dozen large glass urns with self-service taps. They dispense flavored waters, lemonades and signature iced teas swimming with colorful slices of fresh fruits and leaves of herbs. As the name suggests, the concept is predicated on fresh, premium quality, housemade offerings, including beverages that are lighter, less sweet and more natural than conventional soft drinks.
The repertoire includes Vanilla Mint Star Anise Lemonade, Raspberry Mojito Lemonade, Mango Orange Lemonade, Unsweet Green Apple Cinnamon Iced Tea, Sweet Citrus Mint Iced Tea and Cucumber Water.
“Guests are super savvy these days,” says Jesse Gideon, Fresh To Order’s chief operating officer and corporate chef. “They want something more. They want something fresher and better for them.”
“All of those trends that show that iced teas, lemonades and flavored waters are growing and doing fantastic — well, we absolutely live them,” adds Gideon. “We have never put on a tea, lemonade or water that didn’t get a really positive, cult-like following.”
Fresh To Order is taking that philosophy even further in a 3-month-old East Cobb, Ga., unit. Gone is the typical fountain soft drink dispenser. In its place is an expanded array of house signature beverages — nine urns up from the usual six — comprising four iced teas, three lemonades and two flavored waters.
Most East Cobb guests enjoy the expanded house beverages; they seem not to miss fountain soft drinks. “They like to mix and match flavors, making fancy Arnold Palmers like Pear Lemonade with Cinnamon Apple Tea,” says Gideon.
“Our signature beverages are a hook for us. Nobody else is really doing this at the level we are.”
Snappy Salads, a Dallas-based nine-unit fast-casual chain founded in 2006, pleases health-minded patrons with high-quality salads built with fresh-cut produce, tossed with housemade dressings and prepared-to-order meats. From day one, founder and chief executive Chris Dahlander has also included better-for-you beverages on the menu.
Three of the leading alternative refreshers now are fair trade organic black iced tea, private label bottled rainwater and clear, unsweetened fruit-and-vegetable waters.
“Not to have your beverage program match up with your food program is a mistake, I think,” says Dahlander. “You are saying that you don’t care that much about the guest or the overall experience.”
For the many healthy eaters who prefer water with meals, Snappy Salads offers Commitment Water as a sustainable alternative to the filtered city kind. It is a private label product from a Texas company that collects rainwater on rooftops, purifies it and bottles it in biodegradable plastic bottles. A portion of the proceeds from the water are donated to local charities. The item is consistent with Snappy Salads’ business principles that emphasize caring for the environment and giving back to the community.
Another novel branded product at Snappy Salads is a bottled beverage made from fruits and vegetables that have been spun in a centrifuge. The result is clear liquid with its calories and fiber removed, but its flavor and nutrients left in solution. Light, tasty and drinkable, it is a good partner for food, Dahlander says, unlike filling smoothies made from whole fruits and vegetables.
“I am certainly having an increased number of people ask me about the health angles of our food and beverages,” says Dahlander. “It is easy to see that a salad-centric restaurant would attract people who are concerned about their health.”