Industry reports can be a double-edged sword: they foretell trends, but can also mislead operators into thinking there are tastes and ingredients they must have on menus. As information floods in, it takes expertise for operators to understand which trends are worthy of consideration and knowhow to properly menu them.
Step 1: Consider the competition
The first step to a competitive menu is to offer distinctive food, and from that, one-of-a-kind drinks should follow. There is a logical progression to this—better burgers, for instance, deserve better beer and signature shakes—but a shrewd direction to go in is to develop signature house drinks. Mexican concepts can go beyond the basic margarita with a house version, for example, perhaps with seasonal fruits or natural sweeteners.
Chef Rick Perez, who consults with Dole Foodservice, sees the same need for differentiation in non-alcoholic drinks. “Customers can go to hundreds of restaurants and see the same soda choices everywhere,” Perez says. He recommends operators use what they have on hand, like seltzer, tea, lemonade, fruit, and herbs, to mix original, booze-free drinks that will distinguish a beverage menu.
Step 2: Stay Abreast of Trends
“It’s important for operators to watch what’s bubbling up in the numbers, not just total volume of sales,” says Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of the Adult Beverage Resource Group at research firm Technomic. “If something is up 150 percent in sales over the previous year, I’m paying attention, even if its total volume is small.”
Hood Crecca suggests casual eateries watch how hard cider is emerging and earning followers. She recommends menuing the trend in simple steps: first, add a bottled version. If the bottle sells well, offer a cider on tap to pique customers’ interest. Finally, stir up a few mixed cider drinks to evolve guests’ tastes.
Chef Anthony Russo is CEO and president of Russo’s Restaurants, which operates more than 40 locations of the upscale-casual Russo’s Coal-Fired Italian Kitchens and casual Russo’s New York Pizzerias. Russo stays on top of beverage trends by following print and web publications, which help him understand which beverages to test with customers.
In quick service, limited-time options and trendy flavors pop up on menus more frequently. At Sonic, for example, the culinary innovation team travels extensively, trying novel and eccentric flavor profiles in search of menu inspiration. Then, team members bring ideas back to headquarters for evaluation. Their research has yielded out-of-the-box shakes such as Chocolate Covered Jalepeno and Peanut Butter & Bacon.
Step 3: Select only trends that enhance the brand
“When it comes to following trends, we don’t jump on each and every one, but instead analyze how this new flavor or product fits into our current menu, how it matches up with Sonic’s DNA, and if it meets the desires of our guests,” says Patrick Lenow, vice president of public relations at Sonic.
Sonic adds new drinks either for a limited time, such as summery slush drinks, or as permanent additions to the menu, such as recent green tea additions.
For more traditional concepts, the beverage innovations may not be as big and bold, but proper menuing is still important. At Russo’s Restaurants, Russo starts beverage testing at the corporate location first, with a two-month trial period to gauge customer feedback. While Russo keeps some popular mainstays on every menu, he also looks for new regional beers and adds some different wine every six months. He also reevaluates bottled water and soft drinks for new opportunities once a year.
Step 4: Use beverage to develop menu as a whole
A whole-menu approach can support macro trends in the industry. As diners shift away from three square meals to more snacking and grazing, Lenow says Sonic has mirrored their habits by transitioning to a five-daypart approach: breakfast, lunch, afternoon, dinner, and evening. The entire menu is available all day, and the beverage menu aligns with each daypart, with caffeinated beverages in the morning; teas, sodas, and slushes in the daytime; and dessert beverages like shakes for the night.
Both Hood Crecca and Perez recognize a major trend in the way chefs and beverage creators collaborate on ingredient usage, flavor inspiration, and food and beverage pairings, with ideas flowing both ways. Closer connections between kitchen and bar inspire better pairings and simultaneously reinforce the brand’s offerings.
Beverage choices at Russo’s Restaurants adhere to the Italian theme, but consumer interest in better beverages has driven greater testing of new products, especially for pizza-friendly wine and beer.
“The wine list tells you a lot about a restaurant,” Russo says. “If your restaurant carries a small variety of low-grade wines but serves upscale pizza and pasta, that might not be the best reflection on your business.”