When one of the best-selling new items on the menu at a breakfast- and lunch-focused restaurant is a kale-based juice mix, it’s a sure sign that juicing has reached well into mainstream dining consciousness. That’s the case at First Watch, where the recent addition of juice blends to the morning/brunch (7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) menu—better known for such dishes as Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict and Lemon Ricotta Pancakes—was so successful that the 10-restaurant test in October 2014 turned into a 150-unit daily juicing rollout by January 2015.
Now, First Watch offers two standard housemade blends: DayGlow (carrot, orange, lemon and ginger juices) and Kale Tonic (kale, Fuji apple, cucumber and lemon—the top-selling juice by a 3-to-1 margin) served over ice daily across the country. They also have five or so limited time offerings a few times each year, according to First Watch’s Director of Culinary Shane Schaibly. Next up: cucumber mint.
While kale’s ubiquity on menus is hardly new, it’s a sure sign that juices are gaining acceptance as a healthful meal alternative or adjunct to standard restaurant fare.
“We’ve had great success with the juices—our customers are getting behind them, our servers love them, and they are profitable. It takes added labor in the morning, but it’s a success for sure,” says Schaibly.
Juice Lets Loose
Whether using fresh fruits and vegetables or including frozen or puréed produce as well as herbs, spices and nutritional additives, the cues offered by juices and juice blends are obvious: healthful, body-conscious, portable, and in line with current nutrition, farm-to-table and diet trends.
Larger chains have taken note: At California Pizza Kitchen (CPK), Vice President of Marketing Ashley Ceraolo says creating and testing new and interesting juice-based concoctions, both with and without alcohol, gives them insight into what their customers are looking for in beverages today.
“We tested our Blackberry Fizz, now part of our holiday promotion, last year, and it was very well received, so it’s back by popular demand until the end of March,” says Ceraolo. “The first drink we created, the Strawberry Mango Fizz, is now our
No. 4 non-alcoholic beverage. We think the unique qualities plus the flavors and the handcrafting per order by our bartenders help make them really interesting guest experiences,” she says.
The Non-Alc Factor
It’s a shifting time for the non-alcohol category in restaurants, according to Warren Solochek, president of foodservice practice at The NPD Group, a foodservice research and consultancy firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. “On-premise, non-alcohol beverages are down, and that’s really being driven by carbonated soft drinks (CSDs). There’s a health factor: People are looking at things they perceive to be more healthy, like lemonade or iced tea. The other thing is, CSDs have gotten really expensive at restaurants. If you’re being charged $2.50 for a glass of soda but can buy a 20-pack case for six bucks, you may not want to spend that much.” That’s especially true when, for example, at CPK, a Strawberry Mango Cooler (made with strawberries, Fresca and fruit syrup) or a Blackberry Fizz (made with blackberries, lemonade and cranberry juice) are available for just a tad more.
Operators need to be more tuned into what today’s customers want in beverages, says Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group’s Vice President of Culinary Operations Michael Carr-Turnbough. “The landscape of the non-alcohol beverage category is really changing. It’s getting fun but also challenging, with some great opportunities,” he says. “Our guests are much more informed than they ever have been, and, as smart consumers, are also health conscious. It’s driving guests to demand new, healthier and fresh alternatives to the standard non-alcohol beverages like soda and tea. This trend to fresher is really growing outside the restaurant business, and those healthier items have forced the industry to put new items on the menu.”
Kim Haasarud, whose Phoenix-based company Liquid Architecture consults with operators and suppliers on beverage development, says consumer demand is higher than ever for fresh juices, including when it comes to cocktails. “You can’t create as good a cocktail program without fresh juices, period. It’s just allowing for a better cocktail program all around.”
While many chains are reluctant to take on beverage-program tweaks that introduce new products, CPK has found that there isn’t an operational challenge to executing the fruit- and juice-based drinks, according to Natalie Eaglin, senior marketing manager. “Our team members are excited about handcrafted, unique drinks.”
It helps that some of the limited-time drink ingredients are used in multiple ways. “Typically, we work very closely with the culinary team to know what unique ingredients they’re using, and we work with our beverage partners to incorporate those ingredients,” says Ceraolo. When the Strawberry Mango Cooler was introduced, other items like strawberry salad, strawberry shortcake and Strawberry-Lime Margarita also joined the menu. The wider focus on one fruit made a difference and helped control waste, she says.
There are other ways to incorporate fresh juice drinks onto menus. Aguas frescas, the Mexican and Central American refreshers made with fresh fruit, water, sweetener and served traditionally from glass jars, have started making an impact beyond mom-and-pop restaurants.
“They are a great way to incorporate a fresh factor into non-alcoholic drinks. They’re refreshing and hydrating and perfect for lunch as well,” says Haasarud. Two of the Sage Restaurant Group units—Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster, Colo., and Hello Betty Fish House in Oceanside, Calif.—feature aguas frescas.
“They’re just delicious, fit very well with the two concepts, and are not readily available to a lot of our guests,” says Carr-Turnbough. “They’re easy to make and fairly inexpensive, depending on the fruit you use, so they provide an opportunity for diversity, flavor and profit.”
They also help add personality to the businesses, he says, as the jars are prominently displayed and marketed to stimulate interest. Of equal importance, they provide a way to increase check averages while offering something unusual and perceived as more wholesome.
Kachina lists three to six flavors of aguas frescas, mainly in the warmer months, while Hello Betty offers aguas frescas with sorbet added: pineapple agua fresca with mango sorbet, or watermelon with lemon sorbet, for example. “Guests can get something with great flavor, and we’re adding a new twist and an American touch,” says Carr-Turnbough. The float also allows the drinks to double as desserts.
Fruit-flavored lemonades have also become more common. Kachina serves one flavored with prickly pear that started off as seasonal only. Now, when prickly pears aren’t available or the flavor needs adjustment, purées are used to guarantee consistency in flavor. “We try to stay as seasonal as possible, but the purée gives us a way to be consistent,” he says.
At The Advocate in Berkeley, Calif., Matthew Campbell, bar manager, creates aguas frescas based on what’s available from the farmers’ market. The Strawberry Beet Agua Fresca is made with slightly over-ripe strawberries that would have otherwise been discarded. It’s a smart use of produce not suitable for the plate.
While aguas frescas can be customized easily—for example, creating herb and fruit combinations, or introducing vegetables—there are other ways to tweak a fresh juice program. Haasarud suggests looking for more standout produce sources. “I think exploring varietals is a great way to jump on the ‘unique and different’ bandwagon,” she says. “Instead of juicing just navel or Valencia oranges, what about clementines, Cara Caras or pomelo grapefruit, and doing multi-blend orange juices and citrus juices?”
Other unlikely foodservice venues are seeing the value of offering fresh juices. In early 2016, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas added The Juice Standard, a local company known for its signature cold-pressed juices and the latest venue to join the resort’s growing collection of food and beverage partners. Jamie Stephenson, CEO of The Juice Standard, says the cold-pressed juice mixes, made from all-organic produce at a central location, then bottled and sold within 24 hours, are gaining popularity due to a combination of the farm-to-table movement and health awareness—even among visitors to a Sin City casino.
Some operators are turning to new outposts of the growing juice bar business for help. In Nashville, the restaurant 5th & Taylor partnered with a local chain called I Love Juice Bar for three freshly squeezed juices that the restaurant then features in cocktails.
“Customers love the partnership with I Love Juice Bar,” says 5th & Taylor General Manager Nate Cannon. “Beyond that, they love the new recipes for the drinks our Cucumber Gimlet now looks very fresh with a nice froth that comes from shaking the fresh juice.”
Hard-core juicing requires expensive machinery, an investment beyond what 5th & Taylor had in mind, making a partnership more sensible. Cannon says they have been discussing with staff at the juice bar—who already craft numerous combinations daily, like We Got The Beet (beets, carrots, lemon, apple and ginger) and Sweet Greens (apple, cucumber, kale, spinach, parsley and lemon)—about developing a signature program just for 5th & Taylor. “People are more concerned about what they’re consuming and will not only look for but expect some sort of specialty non-alcoholic choices.”
First Watch’s Schaibly points out that not every customer is juicing-savvy, and sometimes small steps are required when introducing a new concept. “Once we found the flavor profile we liked, we wanted them to be served cold. We didn’t want to scare people away, as this is an entry-level juicing program not aimed at hard-core juicers.” So to avoid the austere room temperature and unstrained juices common in more traditional juice bars, First Watch opted to strain and serve their combinations over ice—not typical, but then, few juice bars also serve biscuits with turkey sausage and gravy.