Tapping Into a House Soda Program

I’m a firm believer that every restaurant should have a strong non-alcoholic beverage program. There are a multitude of reasons why somebody might not be able to enjoy a cocktail or wine, and why should that guest have to suffer? Each guest should still have a selection of exciting, fun, one-of-a-kind beverages to choose from.

One of the simplest ways to create a diverse and competitive alcohol-free beverage program is for restaurants to make their own sodas. With the rise of the SodaStream, the home soda-making device, people are already beginning to concoct their own sodas at home. They’ll be pleasantly surprised—and maybe even expect it—when restaurants do it, too.

Creating its own soda gives a restaurant differentiation in the marketplace; the establishment is doing something that maybe one of the competitors is not. It can also be a cost-effective venture. Making a soda, which is essentially a flavored simple syrup mixed with soda water, might cost 20 to 30 cents per portion, but a restaurant can sell that for $2 to $4 per glass, representing an attractive mark-up.

There has been a definite rise in interest in alcohol-free beverage options at restaurants. Many restaurants cater to the business crowd, and some business professionals who expense their meals cannot have alcohol on the check. Exclusive soda options give those guests a viable alternative and also encourage a sale, as opposed to having the guest choose free water.

Kids’ menus are another reason to think about house sodas. Restaurants control the sugar content, so the beverages can be lower in sugar or can use alternative sweeteners, and the selection may encourage kids to sip fruit-forward beverages.

But first, let’s start with the basics: How can a restaurant create its own soda? A soda base is really just a simple syrup that is flavored. For instance, if I were going to make a ginger ale, I’d take some fresh ginger, powdered ginger, sugar, water, and a little bit of citric acid. I’d cook that to a syrup consistency, strain it, and chill it, and from there, all that’s left to do is add the soda water.

Because the process is quite simple, a restaurant’s bar or kitchen staff could easily take it over. And there’s no extra investment required; if the bar has soda water out of the gun, that can be used, or bottled soda water also works well.

I like to recommend this strategy for a non-alcoholic beverage program because it provides so much leeway and freedom for the restaurants. For example, a restaurant could do seasonal beverages. In the summer, when berries and fruits are abundant, the menu could include a blackberry soda or melon soda. It’s also entertaining to create tie-ins to holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, when the restaurant could create a bright red strawberry soda.

On top of that, some of the easier sodas to execute—like a sparkling lemonade or a ginger ale—happen to be key beverages that a restaurant can offer year-round. Blending the year-round sips with seasonal ones, a restaurant can begin to build a portfolio of favorite sodas.

What I like about this non-alcoholic option is that it can easily be integrated with the alcohol program because restaurants can use their house-made sodas as a base for cocktails. For example, for a signature cocktail, take a house-made ginger ale and add rum to it.

If a restaurant chooses to, it could spend a little money to put its soda bases in five-gallon kegs, similar to setting up a tap beer program. In fact, restaurants with a keg beer system could dedicate one of those taps to the house soda, calling it the draft ginger ale or draft cola, and offering a little something special on tap for guests.

Douglass Miller is an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Miller teaches classes on beverages and table service. He has also created award-winning cocktails and spoken at national beverage conferences.

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