Convincing guests to treat themselves to tasty, high-margin drinks can mean the difference between a profitable shift and a challenging one.
With orders of free tap water increasing, according to NPD Group research, operators are seeking to increase check averages with specialty drinks.
Three beverage trends in particular have captured customers’ attention and persuaded them to indulge.
Seasonal trend: Pumpkin spice coffee
Since Starbucks introduced its Pumpkin Spice Latte a decade ago, coffee drinks flavored not necessarily with pumpkin itself but with spices found in pumpkin pie — including cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and sometimes ginger, allspice or star anise — have proliferated on autumn menus.
Online restaurant ordering company GrubHub reports that orders for menu items with the word “pumpkin” in them jump by 33 percent in October and November. Menu research firm Datassential says that virtually all pumpkin limited-time offers appear in the fall, with the remainder introduced in August in anticipation of the seasonal frenzy.
McDonald’s joined the club this year when it introduced a pumpkin spice latte at its more than 14,000 units. The drink is made with Rainforest Alliance Certified espresso and steamed milk infused with spices and pumpkin pie flavoring. It is available through November, or while supplies last, at a suggested retail price of $2.29 for a small, $2.89 for a medium and $3.39 for a large.
Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf has long had pumpkin spice drinks on its menu. This year it also touts an off-the-menu Pumpkin Chai Tea Latte.
Available to customers of the 900-unit chain who know to ask for it, the latte is made with sweet pumpkin sauce and chai spices, including cinnamon, clove and cardamom — dovetailing with flavors typically added to pumpkin spice drinks. Its suggested retail price is $3.50 for a small, $4.30 for a regular and $4.60 for a large. The latte is also available as an iced blended beverage, priced at $3.95 for a small, $4.50 for a regular, $5.35 for a large and $6.35 for a 32-ounce serving.
Paciugo, a 44-unit chain based in Dallas that specializes in gelato, has introduced a spiced pumpkin flavor to its Gelatte line.
Gelattes are lattes made by adding a scoop of gelato to the frothing pitcher along with milk. The mixture is steamed and espresso shots are added. A 12-ounce Gelatte starts at $3.09, though prices vary by location.
Health trend: Tea and infusions
At the recentconference, Technomic Inc. executive vice president Darren Tristano noted that health descriptors are becoming more widespread on drink menus. Green tea, touted for its antioxidant qualities, is benefiting from the trend. This unfermented tea, once found only in Chinese and Japanese restaurants and specialty shops in the United States, now accounts for 15 percent of tea consumption in the country, according to The Tea Association of the USA.
Several chains are tapping into the trend. Sonic Drive-In introduced green tea earlier this year, and at MUFSO, McAlister’s Deli chief executive Frank Paci said the 312-unit chain was introducing it at certain locations.
Sweetgreen, a 20-unit salad and frozen yogurt chain based in Washington, D.C., has introduced a Cranberry Ginger Green Tea for the fall, priced at $2.50.
Cowboy Chicken, an eight-unit chain based in Dallas, is offering an iced Blackberry Tea this fall, sold by the cup for $1.79 and by the gallon for $4.99.
For people avoiding caffeine, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf recently introduced a low-caffeine Blue Tiger Herbal Infusion suitable for children. The infusion blends lemon myrtle, malva flower, tea blossoms and raspberry flavoring, and was launched in conjunction with Coffee Bean director of tea David DeCandia’s children’s book, “Master Davey and the Magical Tea House.” The tea is being sold at select locations and online at Amazon.com, priced at $9.95 for a tin of 20 bags.
Perennial trend: Strawberry
Strawberry remains the most popular mixer for adult beverages, according to Technomic, which found that 35 percent of 1,594 adults surveyed would choose a strawberry-flavored mixed drink or cocktail.
Dave & Buster’s capitalized on the trend this summer with its Strawberry Watermelon Summerita and its Strawberry Sangria.
The Summerita is made with tequila, Watermelon Pucker, watermelon purée and lemonade, shaken and poured over strawberry ice cubes. The sangria features strawberry rum, white Zinfandel and strawberry mixer. The drink is poured over strawberry ice cubes and topped with a splash of soda. Prices vary by location at the 60-unit chain, but all drinks are priced under $10.
Bar Louie, a 71-unit casual-dining chain, added a Strawberry Peach Bellini and a Strawberry Margarita earlier this year.
The margarita features tequila, Triple Sec, sour mix, lime and strawberry purée. The Bellini is made with wild-strawberry-flavored vodka, prosecco, white peach purée, cane syrup and raspberries. Both drinks are priced at $10.
Strawberry is also a popular addition to soft drinks. Red Robin was a trailblazer in that category with its Freckled Lemonade, but 350-unit quick-service chain Wienerschnitzel followed suit last year with its Summer Sippers, available in strawberry and cherry flavors for around $1.89 each. It expanded the line this year with mango and blackberry flavors.
Burger King introduced Frozen Strawberry Lemonade this summer at its more than 7,000 domestic units, for a suggested price of $1.99 for 12 ounces, $2.49 for 16 ounces and $2.99 for 20 ounces.
First Watch broke new ground this summer at its 111 restaurants with a Strawberry Mint Cooler. The drink was made with crushed strawberries and water, garnished with mint leaves and strawberry slices and served over ice. It was priced at $2.99.