Beverages are the entrée to your customers’ dining experience and failure to wow them can lower expectations for the rest of their meal. Worse, they may decide not to return.

Putting emphasis on the drinks menu is a lesson Chip Joyner, a partner in the restaurant group that owns and manages The Real Chow Baby in Atlanta, learned through trial and error. Since 1987 his family has developed restaurant concepts, putting careful thought into flavor profiles of what customers sip and eat. The latest venture is two The Real Chow Baby locations in Atlanta, serving made-to-order Asian-American stir fry.

When the second Atlanta location opened in December, Joyner decided to shake things up a bit and provide four choices for iced tea. “Our number-three seller on our entire menu is sweet tea,” Joyner explains. “We always look at things to enhance what the customer is already ordering.”

Customers can select from peach, pomegranate, apple and ginger flavor additives for their iced-tea drinks. If the customer is uncertain about how much of a flavor punch he or she would like, the flavor additive is served on the side (in a shot glass), providing the option for customization.

Particularly during the warm-weather months when a refreshing beverage is in high demand, be cautious of treating iced tea as simply an afterthought. To expand from a sole offering for iced tea, start by honing in on teas with a colorful hue.

“When serving your guests, consider a tea as visually stunning as it is delicious and refreshing,” says Michael Cramer, owner and founder of Adagio Teas in Garfield, New Jersey, which retails its loose-leaf teas to grocers and restaurant clients, “such as our blood-orange iced herbal tea, a caffeine-free blend of orange peel, hibiscus flowers and rose hips. The next table over will want ‘what she’s having.’ Another staff and customer favorite is our mango tea, a brisk Ceylon black combined with the pleasant flavor of sun-ripened mango.”

Pushing a glass of iced tea onto diners, by offering variety, can not only whet their appetites, it might also prepare the palate for savory flavors in edibles. “Tea is a natural enhancement to any meal as, similar to wine, the tannins effectively cleanse the palate, allowing each bite of food to be tasted anew,” Cramer says.

Presentation should also be considered. Given that tea is a very colorful beverage, opt for clear-colored glasses to help showcase a shocking hue of scarlet, bright yellow or spring green. During the summer months, when access to fresh herbs is much greater, consider adding a sprig of lavender, basil or rosemary to each glass of iced tea.

This is an approach that Ryan Paykert, relies upon when he wants to add more sparkle to a tabletop at Terzo Piano, which opened inside the Modern Art Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago two years ago.

“Depending on the tea, we will look at garnishes to kind of enhance the flavor too,” says Paykert, the beverage director. In January Terzo Piano introduced an unsweetened black tea blend from Chicago’s Intelligentsia Tea which, when flavored with a choice of apricot ginger or peach basil, and with the option of honey simple syrup instead of honey or raw sugar as a sweetener, has been a huge success. Offering the simple syrup actually improves the drink, Paykert says. When compared with honey, which often slips to the bottom of the glass, “it’s got more viscosity and will incorporate more into the beverage,” he says.

A similar love fortea inspired former FedEx executive Wy Livingstone to open Wystone’s Tea Café in Lakewood, Colorado, three years ago. Each of her 150 tea varieties can be prepared iced and is served with light lunch fare like sandwiches, salads and quiches, or specialty hot dishes such as Kobe sliders or grilled ham steak.

For customers not as savvy about tea as Livingstone, her suggestions of an alternative to their favorite beverage usually seals the deal. For example, the naturally caffeinated yerba mate (from the South American yerba mate plant) is a nice switch from a can of Mountain Dew. An iced-coffee lover would enjoy iced black tea.

Wystone’s Tea Café’s most popular tea to date is cranberry hibiscus iced tea with lemon juice. Three Teas of the Week are always ready to serve and require no time to prepare; there is always a black, green and non-caffeinated iced tea included in these.

One of the newest herbal teas to appear “on the rocks” at restaurants across the country is a blend containing Rooibos, from the South African red bush.

“Health and caffeine-conscious drinkers love the high antioxidants, low tannins, and caffeine-free nature,” says Cramer, whose company offers a non-oxidized green Rooibos with a sweet, woodsy and grassy taste. “It infuses a flavorful brew—sweet and slightly nutty—that is delicious on its own but also provides a wonderful base for myriad flavors, from citrusy to spicy.”

One of the easiest flavor tweaks to your menu this summer lies within iced tea. By giving customers options, and simultaneously satisfying their want for a refreshing flavorful drink, iced tea may soon become your most popular menu item—and a reason for customers to return.

By Kristine Hansen
Industry News