Better burgers, better burritos, better beverages: In their efforts to stand out from quick-service competitors with high-quality, out-of-the-ordinary menu offerings, fast-casual restaurants are working to elevate their non-alcohol drinks selection.
So far in 2014, fast-casual concepts have added distinctive new choices such as a house-made cranberry ginger soda (4food in New York City), Fentimans Botanical Sodas (a U.K. brand, now offered at Portland-based Elephants Delicatessen), mango-tangerine juice (Pret A Manger) and ginger black iced tea (New York-based Dig Inn Seasonal Market). More-indulgent new sippable treats include the Pie Smoothie at Grand Traverse Pie Company and the Mod Orangesicle Shake at Mod Pizza.
Adding beyond-the-basics beverage choices may be especially valuable for fast-casual brands eager to build sales between mealparts—and fend off snacktime competition from coffee cafes and fast-food giants. Starbucks last month announced that it would debut its line of all-natural, preservative-free Fizzio handcrafted sodas in stores this summer, and Dunkin’ Donuts recently added an iced green tea as well as blueberry, raspberry and peach flavors of its traditional iced tea. SONIC Drive-In, meanwhile, has brought back its half-price-shakes-after-8-p.m. promotion for the summer and debuted new shake and slush flavors such as Oreo Caramel and Super Peach Ring (inspired by peach-ring gummy candies).
Within the fast-casual restaurant segment, what’s trending in non-alcohol beverages? Lemonade-and-iced-tea blends, “restaurant originals” (such as house-made sodas), beyond-fruit smoothies (featuring ingredients such as kale or peanut butter) and specialty teas all saw their menu incidences climb from Q1 2013 to Q1 2014, Technomic’s MenuMonitor online resource reveals. Energy drinks, too, saw growth—an impressive 14%, in fact. Milkshakes/malts also saw their menu appearances rise more than 12%.
Leading flavors within non-alcohol beverages at fast-casual restaurants include coffee, lemon, banana, chocolate and strawberry. The fastest-growing flavor profiles? Almond, blackberry, Mexican (as in sweet, creamy horchatas), hibiscus and green apple.
Here’s a taste of a few on-trend beverage choices now appearing on fast-casual menus:
- Strawberry Arnold Palmer, Dinkies (New York): Refreshing real strawberry lemonade with freshly brewed black tea, served hot or cold, with or without bubbles
- Lemonade Iced Tea, Le Pain Quotidien: Sweetened with raw organic agave nectar
- Frozen Spiced Chai, Atlanta Bread Company: Frozen blend of honey, vanilla, black tea and spices
- Boomerang Punch, Boomerangs Gourmet Burger Joint (San Dieg0): Orange, pineapple and cranberry juices with a splash of pomegranate
- Happy Belly Juice, Vees Cafe (Los Angeles): Blend of apple, watermelon and carrot juices
- Horchata, Pollo Campero: Refreshing drink made from nuts, cinnamon, rice and milk
- Blackberry Orange Lemonade, Wildflower Bread Company: With freshly squeezed lemonade, orange juice and blackberry
- Pina De Lychee, Osha Thai Noodle Cafe (San Francisco): Pineapple, lychee and lychee syrup on ice
- Hibiscus Soda, 4food (New York): All-natural soda made with fresh lime juice, ginger, agave, organic sugar and hibiscus
- Ernest Hemingway, Brixx Wood Fired Pizza: Like a mojito without the rum—a blend of fresh lime and mint, sweetened with raw sugar and topped with sparkling water
- Draught Root Beer, Shake Shack: From Abita Brewing Co. in Louisiana
- Pure Pret Ginger Beer, Pret A Manger: Sparkling water with natural ginger extracts and no artificial colors or flavors
- Low-Fat B-Green Power Smoothie, Paradise Bakery & Cafe: A mix of fruit and vegetable purees, juices and concentrates blended with a banana
- Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie, Frulatti Cafe: Made with low-fat, non-dairy smoothie mix
- Mocha Milkshake, Jake’s Wayback Burgers: Coffee with a cool, creamy milk chocolate flavor
- Triple Berry Blast Milkshake, Burgerville: Marionberry, raspberry and blueberry with local Sunshine Dairy ice cream and real whipped cream
Worth noting, with regard to beverages and snacking: Consumers polled for Technomic’s 2014 Snacking Occasion Consumer Trend Report estimated that nearly half (46%) of their snacking occasions include both food and a beverage. An additional 17% of their snacks, they estimated, are beverage-only. Among consumers who purchase beverages as snacks, soft drinks and coffee drinks are the preferred choices—more than 60% of beverage snackers buy these as snacks at least once every 90 days. However, juice, tea (hot or iced), and milkshakes or malts also are popular snack selections, with more than two in five consumers at least occasionally choosing these.