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Eager to win favor with mindful consumers, many restaurant operators are reformulating beverages with ingredients billed as “natural,” “clean,” “organic” and “local.”
Natural ingredients/clean menus ranked as the third-hottest concept trend in the National Restaurant Association's What’s Hot 2017 Culinary Forecast. Also scoring high in the forecast were trends that often dovetail with a natural, clean approach, such as locally sourced produce, meat and seafood, and hyper-local sourcing — which includes restaurant gardens and house-made menu items.
Research reveals how meaningful this is to consumers. In 43 percent of foodservice occasions in which a beverage is consumed, having items made with simple, real ingredients was among the most important considerations for consumers, according to Eating Occasions Compass data from The Hartman Group, a market research company. And in a survey of more than 1,000 undergraduate students last year by industry consultants Beverage Marketing Corporation and Fluent, about half said that they try to avoid artificial sweeteners, flavorings, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup.
Throughout the world of food, such intelligence is heeded. Products as familiar as boxed macaroni and cheese and diet cola have been remade with natural alternatives to artificial substances. In the foodservice industry Panera Bread recently announced its menu is now 100 percent clean and free from all artificial flavors, preservatives, sweeteners and colors.
The fast-casual bakery-café chain reviewed more than 450 ingredients in its supply chain and reformulated 122 of them, modifying most of its recipes. Nic’s Organic Fast Food, slated to open early this year in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, plans a certified organic menu including all-natural sodas, organic iced tea, organic juices and organic and responsibly sourced coffee.
Even cocktails are held to a higher standard. Eden, a new restaurant in Chicago with a menu of Mediterranean and New American fare, relies on clean, fresh ingredients at the bar as well as in the kitchen. “It’s important to know exactly what is going into your drinks,” says mixologist Alex Rydzewski. “You don’t want to worry about preservatives and chemicals.”
Consumers evidently view natural, clean positioning as a plus at cocktail hour. “I think a lot of people are unaware of how much sugar goes into the run-of-the-mill cocktails some places serve,” says Rydzewski. “It is still alcohol at the end of the day, but if you can make it a little more nutritious and natural and not use tons of sugar, it is desirable.”
At the Eden bar Rydzewski favors natural sweeteners such as carrot juice, fruit juices and purees, and honey syrups to create balanced flavor profiles in drinks. He crafts signature cocktails with the best spirits and local, seasonal ingredients that he can get. One of his creations, Elevenses, is a medley of gin infused with Earl Grey tea, lavender orange blossom honey, grapefruit bitters and egg white.
“Rather than use a preflavored liqueur, we are steeping high-quality tea in the gin,” says Rydzewski. Also made in-house are the fresh lavender-flavored orange blossom honey and grapefruit bitters. Shaking the drink with egg white lends a silky texture. “You have a little acidity; you have the honey and the really great tasting gin and grapefruit,” he says.
Another Eden cocktail, Benson & Hedges, is a mix of smoky, peaty 10-year-old single-malt scotch whiskey, rosemary, falernum — which is a spiced syrup — cherry puree and cold-pressed apple cider. Looking ahead to spring, Rydzewski foresees exploring organic vodka and the pleasant tartness of sorrel, a fresh herb grown in the restaurant’s 1,800-square-foot greenhouse, in seasonal cocktails.
Menuing beverages like a Moscow Mule made with house-made fresh ginger syrup or a smoothie flavored with organic caramel syrup can show consumers how committed a restaurant operator is to following the natural, clean, premium approach.
“Just using real cane sugar in your lemonade by itself is not going to drive a lot of trips to your restaurant,” says Tamara Barnett, vice president, strategic insights, for The Hartman Group, based in Bellevue, Washington. “It is not the only touchpoint. You are going to have to do more than that. But it is a part of the overall experience for people, another instance in which the operator can contemporize and follow the trends.”
“If you decide to just rest on your soda fountain without doing anything else, you risk leaving one of those key proof points for consumers on the table,” says Barnett.
Consumer interest in natural, clean foods and beverages is likely to continue reshaping foodservice occasions. Operators who analyze their menus and make appropriate changes lay the groundwork to profit by the trend.