Warming up with a cup of coffee, sipping on hot cider, and indulging in cocoa may be what consumers have come to expect with winter beverages. But while these mainstays remain prevalent on winter beverage menus, consumers are also beginning to crave more adventurous flavor profiles—and restaurants are delivering.
Ethnic drinks and flavor profiles are creeping toward the top of guests’ list this winter, with beverages like dolce de leche from South America and hot horchata from Latin America becoming new seasonal favorites. With traditional winter flavors like vanilla, cinnamon, and allspice, these ethnic drinks give guests a taste of the familiar with a foreign twist, says Michael Szyliowicz, CEO of GoodDrinks, a specialty drinks producer.
One of GoodDrinks’ newest products, Chatta, is a horchata-inspired drink used by restaurants like Seattle-based Azteca.
In addition to international drinks, operators are also beginning to tout the origins of particular ingredients used in everything from teas to coffees. “It used to be that it was fine having mocha on the menu,” Szyliowicz says. “Now we’re offering customers single-origin chocolates to differentiate their mochas. So instead of just a mocha, now it’s a mocha made with cocoa butter from Peru.”
Restaurateurs are applying this differentiation to coffee blends, too, menuing seasonal varietals from Ethiopia and Guatemala in addition to their typical holiday blends, Szyliowicz says.
While many ethnic drinks—and most winter beverages in general—are served hot, consumers are also requesting cold beverages like smoothies and shakes during the cooler months, says Joe Pawlak, senior vice president of restaurant industry research firm Technomic.
At the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Montpelier, Vermont, students have taken one of the most popular seasonal flavors—pumpkin—and turned it into a pumpkin pie smoothie. Topped with whipped cream, it’s a treat that both adults and children enjoy during the winter, says Denis Boucher, an NECI instructor and restaurant general manager.
“Parents are much happier for their kids to have fruit smoothies, which is a lot healthier for them, and we end up charging more for those,” he says.
While winter smoothies may provide a healthier beverage alternative, the holiday season is a time when many diners like to indulge in decadent treats. Red Robin answers this craving with its Gingerbread Milkshake, a winter staple that combines the traditional flavors of gingerbread with the indulgent taste of ice cream and graham cracker crumbs.
“Milkshakes are a big part of what we do at Red Robin,” says Donna Ruch, master mixologist at the casual-dining chain. “They do very well and they go perfect with our gourmet burgers. Adding the holiday flavor just makes sense for us.”
Though flavors like gingerbread and pumpkin spice have become commonplace on winter beverage menus over the last several years, Szyliowicz says restaurateurs are now looking for ways to differentiate traditional flavors and drinks from their competitors’ offerings, particularly through a focus on handcrafted beverages.
“People want to be able to see part of the operation that makes the end drink,” he says. “It used to be you just pushed a button and it magically appeared, and I think people want to actually see labor involved.”
Higher-quality and local ingredients are also becoming points of differentiation for many eateries. At Red Robin, that means using real pumpkin pie filling versus a pumpkin flavoring in its Pumpkin Pie Milkshake.
At NECI, it means making cider concentrate from scratch using local Vermont apples—a concentrate it then uses to flavor various mulled ciders on its winter beverage menu.
“The challenge for the successful operator is to be able to have that mainstream, universally accepted flavor on the menu, but to accentuate it with other things that people would want to try,” Szyliowicz says.
While consumers and operators are becoming more adventurous with their winter beverages, the traditional offerings and flavors aren’t disappearing. Hot coffee, cocoa, teas, and ciders are sticking around, “but we’re seeing some evolution there,” Pawlak says. “When you look at coffees and you’re talking about winter, they’re spicing things up.”
Whether it’s a pumpkin-flavored coffee drink or hot chocolate flavored with mint, hazelnut, orange, or even coconut, Pawlak says restaurants are becoming more adventurous with the flavors they present to consumers. Even eggnog is getting a makeover, he adds, with flavors of apple pie and French vanilla mixed in.
Diners are also expanding their horizons on the flavored tea front. Pawlak says chai teas are becoming more prevalent, while Boucher says rooibos—a red herbal tea made popular in South Africa—is popping up on more menus during the winter season. As of 2012, nearly 40 million consumers over the age of 18 drink chai tea, while 20 million consume rooibos, according to a report from market research firm Packaged Facts.
“Restaurants are experimenting with all sorts of flavorings and ingredients to take it beyond just the run-of-the-mill coffee or tea,” Pawlak says. “They’re almost taking them to a new level, where they’re actually desserts or snacks.”
By Mary Avant