We’ve seen better-for-you push into every foodservice segment and menu daypart. It’s even made its way into brand DNA, affecting ideation and development at a philosophical level. Healthful menu development has moved from a tactic to a strategy. But should it influence beverage design? After all, diet sodas fit the “better-for-you” bill, and they’re great profit generators. But healthier beverages can do more than round out a selection. They can showcase creativity and increase beverage sales. Much of the industry is on a path of exploring and implementing alternatives to sugar-laden beverages—both non-alcoholic and alcoholic varieties. Datassential tells us that 66 percent of surveyed operators believe that finding alternatives to sugar-sweetened beverages is a long-term trend, even though those same folks see the cost of implementing alternatives is expected to increase 12 to 13 percent.
The Meaning of Healthy
First, let’s define a “healthy” beverage. Let’s cast aside the world of smoothies for now—although some are chock full of good stuff, they’re generally seen as meal replacements or snacks. We’re looking at beverage opportunities during meal times and cocktail hours. So, should menu developers define better-for-you beverages as low calorie? Is it that simple? If it were, “skinny” would rule the roost here—and it doesn’t always. “The notion of health and wellness has shifted dramatically,” says Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights for Seattle-based The Hartman Group. “The industry is looking at healthier as fresh, less processed.”
Even in beverage, then, positive cues like “housemade” and “fresh-squeezed” resonate. “Drinks are getting simpler, but with better and healthier ingredients,” says Kim Haasarud, founder of Liquid Architecture, a beverage consultancy based in Phoenix. “Healthy is tricky here. It means ‘better than the alternative.’ So, it’s hand-squeezed orange juice versus bag in a box.” Those premium cues go a long way in positioning healthier beverages.
“It’s not necessarily about calories,” says David Commer, president of Commer Beverage, a consultancy based in Lewisville, Texas. “It’s about ‘better for you’ and ‘feel good.’ It’s using more natural sweeteners, like honey, agave, pure cane sugar and juices. It’s less about artificial sweeteners.”
The Buzz on Non-Alcoholic
There’s a brave, new world in non-alcoholic beverages. From cold-pressed teas to housemade lemonades, operators are making their offerings craveable and memorable. Following the better-for-you cues of fresh and less processed, they get the health halo—along with premium positioning. “There’s huge opportunity here,” says Haasarud. “You can charge $4 to $5.”
Perhaps it’s a freshly squeezed lemonade sweetened with honey. Or a Mango Passion Tea, like the one served at Uncle Julio’s.TGI Friday’s has new fresh-fruit teas made with real fruit, fresh juices and agave nectar. Haasarud calls out the housemade ginger beer at P.F. Chang’s as another example. “They have had huge success with their ginger beer,” she says. “Both as a signature non-alcoholic drink and as a platform for the Moscow Mule and the Dark & Stormy.”
Haasarud notes the subtle but significant advantages of a progressive non-alcohol drink program: “It separates you from the competition, telling your guests that you’re putting more thought and time into your beverage program,” she says. That extra thought and time is an overarching value with today’s consumer: Craftsmanship, authenticity and quality are now touchstones across the foodservice landscape. “Premium, better-for-you beverages shift the overall perception of a restaurant,” says Haasarud. “And look at the margin—you’re still doing well: $2 for a fountain drink and $4 for a hand-crafted soda or fresh juice.”
Commer points out the competitive edge inherent in creating memorable better-for-you beverages. “There’s a lot of noise around non-alcoholic beverage programs. If I’m selling soda or tea, that’s something they can get across the street. Give them something they can trade up to and remember,” he says.
Fruit purées and fruit pieces in beverages maximize health and wellness cues. Commer suggests IQF for consistency and availability. “Chains have to do a bit more work on the front end, but it’s worth it,” he says. He suggests pre-portioning IQF blackberries and raspberries, for instance. “Pre-make a fresh lemonade. Pre-portion the fruit. Then it’s a 1-2-3 process at service,” he says. “Uncle Julio’s launched a few alcohol-free drinks, including a Strawberry Guava Lemonade, using real strawberries, guava nectar with lemonade and fresh lemon squeezes. It sold really well.”
Beyond flavored lemonades, fresh juices offer another entry point into fresh, better-for-you builds. “Juicing to order is really taking off,” says Haasarud. “Fresh juices and juice blends add a huge differentiator.” The Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts offers up Juby True, a juicing concept that serves cold-pressed juices and smoothies. In its Phoenix location, it supplies sister restaurant True Food Kitchen with a number of its “Natural Refreshments.” The Kale-Aid is a juice blend starring kale, apple, cucumber, celery, lemon and ginger ($6).
At Red Star Tavern, housed in the Hotel Monaco in Portland, Ore., brunch guests can choose from an array of cold-pressed juices, including the Beets Me, a blend of red beets, carrot, ginger and cilantro ($8).
Innovations in blender technology, like high-volume efficiency and quieter motors, have made it easier for operations to add juicing to the beverage program. Interestingly, the juicing trend in foodservice is so inherently tied to health and wellness, one blender company, Blendtec, even offers an in-house registered dietitian to help with nutritionals, flavor profiles and recipe development.
Notice we didn’t say “skinny” cocktails. There’s a huge difference in perception here, but there seems to be a place for both. “I see less of that word because it has negative connotations—it won’t taste as good and it’s got artificial sweeteners,” says Haasarud.
Commer agrees. “There’s definitely a backlash on the word ‘skinny.’ It sounds artificial,” he says. Positive descriptors, instead, are where the trend is now. The challenge, then, in better-for-you cocktails is delivering those healthful, feel-good cues and being somewhat mindful of calories.
Fresh juices certainly help with cocktails, both in claiming craftsmanship and positioning the wellness factor. Bitters are also a great flavor boost without the calorie spend. “They add that aromatic perspective to a drink,” says Commer. “With just a few drops, you get a complete sensory experience. As we move away from sugar, it’s about subtle flavors, like in bitters. Fresh herbs, too, support that health halo.” We’ve moved beyond the perfunctory mint, and now we’re seeing fresh basil, rosemary, even heady sage.
Beverage experts say that most restaurants looking to incorporate better-for-you cocktails aim to keep them less than 150 calories.
One simple tactic for reducing calories is using lower-proof alcohols. “I can get a drink under 150 calories with juices, natural agave nectar and using a liquor like Malibu rum versus vodka,” says Commer. “Lower proof is lower calorie.”
The bar has indeed been raised on drink development, and better-for-you is the newest phase in the movement.
“The standard used to be sour mix out of a gun,” says Haasarud. “Consumers expect more now—they expect better. They want drinks that have fresh, better-for-you ingredients they can understand.”
“Pay attention to cocktail culture,” advises The Hartman Group’s Abbott. “I look at it as a leader of the gold standard today—that’s where the real innovation is happening.” She calls out craft cocktails’ inclusion of exotic fruits, seasonal fruits and juices. “They’re clean ingredients. And consumers respond to them,” she adds. “They’re thinking about long-term health and wellness, and you’re giving them something that’s fun, but with health qualities.”