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Creative cocktails and coffees shake up morning menus

Revamped beverage programs are driving sales and winning over breakfast and brunch guests.

Breakfast and brunch have become hotbeds of beverage innovation, spirits, mixers and recipes that have long been signatures in bars and restaurants after dark take their place alongside omelets, waffles and Benedicts. Zero-proof cocktails, specialty coffees, teas, chai and smoothies with strong customer appeal are also re-energizing beverage menus.

Selling these high-margin, easy-to-serve specialty beverages, in both alcoholic and alcohol-free applications, can be a much-needed profit center for operators coping with high inflation, rising commodity costs and ongoing labor challenges.

Even some big names in the family-dining segment, which traditionally emphasized breakfast foods and refrained from selling alcohol, have launched their first-ever adult beverage offerings to build sales and lessen the veto vote when guests are in the mood for a drink. This summer Cracker Barrel Old Country Store touted the Rocket Pop Mimosa, described in a news release as the chain’s “classic strawberry mimosa topped with a nostalgic Rocket Popsicle.” Another major player, IHOP, has been offering a Bubbles, Wine & Brews menu in select locations.

For Another Broken Egg Café, a breakfast, brunch and lunch chain based in Orlando, Fla., selling alcohol has been a pillar of the concept since its founding in 1996.

“We’ve always had a full bar and that has helped us differentiate,” said president and CEO Paul Macaluso. “Now that other players in the brunch space are getting more into alcohol, we’re continuing to lean into it and innovate.”

Another Broken Egg’s alcohol sales are approaching 15% of total sales at its 83 units, with some locations topping 20%.

“That’s a meaningful part of our business considering we're only open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” said Macaluso. “It's also one of the fastest growing parts of our business and one of the most profitable parts as well.”

One of the keys to this performance is a beverage enhancement initiative called “raising the bar” internally. Cocktails such as Tito’s & Watermelon Red Bull; the ABE Cyclone, with Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, Tito’s Vodka and Frangelico liqueur; and the seasonal Pumpkin Spice Spiked Cold Brew, with spiced rum, pumpkin cold brew, a cream-spiced topping and a caramel pecan rim, reflect the premium spirits, attractive glassware and garnishes now in use.

“We made a major effort to elevate the brands we're carrying and highlight them,” Macaluso said.

A memorable experience

One of the major changes in the brunch beverage scene is the greater emphasis that many operators are placing on the quality of offerings.

“I firmly believe that having a great cocktail menu at brunch is a big reason you get repeat guests,” said Randy Sharpe, CEO of Xperience Restaurant Group, which recently opened Solita Tacos & Margaritas in Chicago. “If you drive a busy, profitable brunch daypart it takes the restaurant to another level.”

Solita’s Mimosa Bucket, a bottle of sparkling wine and a carafe of fresh-squeezed orange juice served in an iced bucket, is “huge” on weekend brunch tables, Sharpe said. So is its offshoot the Rainbow Mimosa Bucket, which pairs bubbly with a choice of up to four flavors of juice in individual carafes. The choices are watermelon, guava, mango, strawberry, pomegranate and pineapple. “This is a way for people to navigate their own experience with a spinoff of the mimosa, a drink that has been a brunch classic from day one,” said Sharpe.

The Ducky Frozé, café Solita’s number-one seller, is a riff on its popular frozen margarita with guava juice topped off with sparkling rose and a whimsical miniature toy rubber duck. “It's one of those drinks that you could have in the evening and it’s fine,” said Sharpe. “But if you're having it at brunch it feels totally natural too.”

Solita also offers a Casamigos Reposado Paloma made with reposado tequila and fresh grapefruit and a zesty Watermelon-Habanero Martini spiked with organic habanero vodka. And the Velvet Espresso combines chocolate rum, caffe espresso liqueur and velvet cream liqueur, topped with vodka-infused mocha whipped cream and a dusting of cacao powder.

“It has a little espresso kick and a lot of flavors that remind you of dessert,” Sharpe said.                                       

Culinary cocktails

At the Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group in Chicago, senior beverage manager Thomas Mizuno-Moore sees a trend of brunch beverages being designed more intentionally to harmonize with a restaurant’s cuisine.

Take the drinks Mizuno-Moore crafts to accompany the cooking of LEYE chef-partner CJ Jacobson at Aba and Ema, two restaurants in Chicago that showcase his style of Mediterranean cuisine influenced by the flavors of Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.

“I try to make sure that there is connective tissue between CJ's dishes and the drinks we put in place to complement them,” said Mizuno-Moore. A case in point is Aba’s Harissa Bloody Mary, mixed with chili-garlic infused vodka, house-made harissa and pickles. The key is balancing the proportions of harissa, a spicy condiment, and the tomato and garlic components. This requires retaining enough of the DNA of the original Bloody Mary,” Mizuno-Moore said, or in other words, “retaining the scaffolding of the familiar.”

In addition, he notes that it is important for brunch drinks to be long and not too strong for daytime consumption. Take Aba’s Loose Pamplemousse, which Mizuno-Moore likens to a gin Collins. It is a mixture of gin, Campari, grapefruit, raspberry, lemon and soda. “But we've reduced the gin and supplemented it with modifiers that add complexity but not a ton of extra alcohol,” said Mizuno-Moore. “So you get still get all the flavor you want but you don't come away feeling you have overindulged.”

Following suit is the spritzy Citrus Paradisi, an Aba brunch libation mixed with vodka, Italian aperitif wine, grapefruit, lime and prosecco.

Another effective way to make money at breakfast and brunch is selling specialty coffee, especially cold brew. Riffs on familiar beverages abound in this space. Some players are offering variations of cold, creamy flavored toppings, such as the pumpkin cream cold foam Starbucks offers with Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew. Specials at Turning Point restaurants, based in Eatontown, N.J., include North Shore Cold Brew, with sweet cold foam and toasted coconut flakes atop a cold brew blend with coconut and macadamia nut accents. For those who like a hotter, sweeter and nostalgic specialty, Turning Point offers S’Mores Hot Chocolate, with toasted marshmallow syrup, whipped cream and crushed graham crackers.

Coffee has its place behind the bar, too. The espresso martini has gone in and out of style over the years, but improved versions of the drink created during the pandemic caught fire and have stayed hot. In fact, searches for espresso martinis are up 114% per The Food & Dining Trends of 2022 by Yelp.

“The espresso martini is booming again,” said Mizuno-Moore, who includes an espresso martini with a balanced and pleasing coffee flavor profile on all his drink menus. A notable example is the Greek Espresso Martini offered at brunch at Ema, sister concept to Aba in Chicago. It features rosemary-infused mastiha liqueur made from aromatic resin of Greek mastic trees, combined with espresso and cacao.

The next generation of flavors

America’s institutions of higher education have long been incubators of food and beverage trends, with preferences evolving with each incoming student population.

“It's interesting seeing these post-COVID kids come up,” said Ethan Haggerty, area manager of UConn Dining Services at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn. “They’re ordering a lot more chai and espresso drinks. I think they’re more used to the Starbucks menu than those who grew up with smaller coffee companies that didn't have full-blown espresso menus.”

At CrossRoads, UConn Dining Services’ plant-based cafe, many students have a taste for Dirty Chai, a derivative of the Indian spiced tea with a shot of espresso mixed in, and Dirty Cocoa, hot cocoa with the espresso treatment.

“Five years ago you were pretty much talking about iced coffee and cappuccinos and lattes,” said Haggerty. “But now the kids have much wider palates, and they’re interested in trying different things.”

Smoothies are fan favorites too. The Mango café in the UConn campus recreation center is selling “hundreds per day,” Haggerty said. Smoothies are typically made with yogurt, coconut milk and IQF frozen fruit, with optional nutritional add-ons. The Chocolate Peanut Butter Protein smoothie is a blend of banana, chocolate peanut butter powder, coconut milk, coconut yogurt and vegan pea powder. The Berry Energy Smoothie features strawberry, banana, blueberry, raspberry, coconut milk and vegan granola.

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