Specialty drinks pump up fast casual menus

June 27, 2010

This summer, fast casual chains are urging customers to drink up, adding upscale lemonades, fruit infusions and cold coffee concoctions to restaurant menus.

Cosi, the 143-unit sandwich chain, is offering Watermelon Habanero lemonade and a non-alcoholic sangria this summer; with the cold drinks joining smoothies, a staple at the Deerfield, Ill.-based concept.

In addition to Cosi, Panera Bread is offering frozen strawberry lemonade at its 1,400 locations this summer and in April, Atlanta-based Zaxby’s, the 490-unit chicken chain added four milkshakes in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, flavors.

And addition of specialty beverages doesn’t stop there.

Bruegger’s and Charley’s Grilled Subs also are amplifying their beverage menus this year.

At Charley’s, where the signature beverage is lemonade, a cranberry-pomegranate version will join the lineup of strawberry, kiwi, raspberry and original flavors, said Betsy Wright, marketing director for the 407-unit chain, based in Columbus, Ohio.

The lemonades are made daily from a mix and displayed in old-fashioned lemonade jars; each store offers at least two flavors daily which sell for $1.69 for 22 ounces or $2.29 for 32 ounces.

Wright calls beverages a good way to freshen up the menu without overly taxing R&D or staff. “They’re easier to get out there and introduce,” she said. “It’s easier than making a whole new sandwich or a whole new pizza.”

Simple Logic

Indeed, the logic behind beverages is simple: “When a guest buys lunch, they want a beverage, and if you don’t have a creative beverage strategy, they’ll not buy one or trade down to something basic,” said Dean Small, founder and managing partner at Synergy Restaurant Consultants, based in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Prepared-to-order beverages based on coffee, tea or fresh fruit juices also mimic a trend happening further up on the food chain: The abundance of upscale, innovative cocktails available on restaurant and lounge menus, Small said.

Patrons, he added, don’t think of fast casual restaurants as a place to have a drink - those that offer alcoholic beverages don’t sell many of them - but “fancy” beverages are a good substitute. “Beverages that are so hip and cool - they sound healthy, they sound fresh, they’re on trend,” Small said.

At Bruegger’s, this summer’s promotional drinks are a line of four Iced Coffee Coolers, available in peach, caramel, coffee and vanilla. The Coolers join the chain’s popular Brueggaccino, said Philip Smith, executive chef at the 300-unit bagel/sandwich chain, and will be on the menu through Aug. 31.

Smith sought a “sophisticated” taste when developing the coolers. “If you look at the world of coffee drinks, they are predominantly sweet,” he said.

To give the drinks a dominant coffee note, he developed a triple-brewed espresso concentrate. The concentrate is blended with the Brueggaccino’s ice-cream base, shaken with ice in a metal bartender’s shaker, and poured into a glass.

Smith said staff loves the theater of preparing drinks in front of the customers - an element that’s helping the drinks sell well. As for customers, “I think folks like to experiment, to have something different,” he said, agreeing with Small that some interest is due to the “mixology” craze at restaurants and bars. “The more we put interesting things out there, the more people will try them,” Smith said.

Next up for Bruegger’s: A beverage line based on teas, a “sufficiently flexible” beverage, Smith said. “I could do a superfruit green tea, and people would say that’s cool - as long as it tastes good,” he said.

Red Mango also launched a line of probiotic iced teas in March as a way to offer guests a healthy alternative to its frozen yogurt and to capture more of the lunch crowd.

The company also launched a line of probiotic smoothies and parfaits to differentiate the brand from other frozen yogurt concepts. The launch was tied to a marketing campaign that invited consumers to re-think lunch and also was used to appeal to guests wanting a healthy and nutritious meal replacement.

"Sometimes health can take a backseat when grabbing a meal on the run. That's why we are encouraging customers to re-think yogurt and consider Red Mango a lunch-worthy option,” said Red Mango CEO Dan Kim.

Topics: Food & Beverage

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