SKU proliferation has left its mark on the consumer packaged goods (CPG) market. But innovative new products aren’t just for the retail shelves. Foodservice operations also are developing new beverages to entice consumers.

“Foodservice operators are increasingly recognizing the value of a robust beverage offering to their concepts’ ability to attract and satisfy today’s consumers,” says Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of Chicago-based Technomic Inc. “Many types of operators — from quick-service and fast-casual restaurants to casual and upscale eateries, as well as convenience stores, college campus dining facilities and even transportation operators such as airlines — are investing in beverage programs and product development.”

Crecca notes that a strong beverage program can attract consumers to foodservice locations. 7-Eleven’s Sour Patch Slurpees or Chick-fil-A’s cold-brew coffee are examples of how a location can differentiate and help define a restaurant or foodservice concept, she explains. They also can keep consumers intrigued and engaged.

Sourcing Technomic’s Restaurant Consumer Brand Metrics, Crecca says beverages also can build guest satisfaction. “Consumers who ordered an adult beverage on their most recent occasion were more likely to give the experience an excellent rating than those who did not order an alcohol drink,” she says.

Keeping things interesting

Among the ways that foodservice operators are sprucing up their beverage menu options is through craft options and cocktail programs.

“On the alcohol front, we’re tracking craft beer, [hard] cider, wine cocktails and beer cocktails as trending,” Crecca says.

Benihana Inc., Aventura, Fla., released some limited-edition signature cocktails as part of
its seasonal program. Through Oct. 5, the Japanese themed sushi restaurants will offer its Sparkling Strawberry Sangria, which blends Absolut Citron Vodka, Combier Liqueur D’Orange, fresh strawberries and lemon juice, topped with Rosa Regale; Tokyo Blueberry, a mix of Pinnacle Blueberry vodka with fresh blueberries, lemon juice and ginger beer; and Sparkling Pineapple Saketini, a combination of Ciroc Pineapple Vodka and Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur that is shaken with crushed pineapple and then topped with MIO Sparkling Sake.

According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor, classic cocktails such as Moscow Mules and Negronis are becoming more popular options to include on menus, Crecca notes. “Adult milkshakes are a fun and novel addition to many menus as well,” she adds.

For non-alcohol beverages, cold-brew coffee, kombucha, Italian and Mexican sodas, sparkling teas, agua frescas, functional and indulgent smoothies and fresh juices are popping up more often as menu options, Crecca says. “Many of these beverages tie into the current consumer interest in freshly prepared food and drinks, authenticity and craftsmanship,” she adds.

Earlier this year, Jamba Juice Co., Emeryville, Calif., teamed up with ClassPass, the premier fitness membership, for a special event collaboration to unveil three new flavor additions to its Freshly Squeezed Juice line: Veggie Vitality, Cucumber Orange Cooler and Orange Supreme. With a network of fitness studios spanning across 34 cities in three countries, ClassPass will help Jamba Juice tap into its engaged and active consumer base and together tout the juice and fitness pairing, the companies say.

Covington, La.-based PJ’s Coffee understands the importance of having a strong, innovative beverage program. The foodservice operator develops seasonal marking campaigns around its new product innovations, says Reid Nolte, director of marketing and brand strategy for PJ’s Coffee.

“Traditionally, consumers are very habitual with beverage purchases,” he says. “However, our product mix has become increasingly diverse as consumers, especially millennials and centennials, are becoming more adventurous and favoring experiences over status.”

Utilizing its own market and consumer research, PJ’s Coffee found that demand for refreshing beverages went beyond the coffee category, Nolte says. Additionally, its consumers wanted an in-store experience extending beyond the traditional breakfast day part.

“We used this feedback and introduced three iced tea beverages that launched this spring: Green Tea Mojito, Ginger Peach Palmer and Habanero Breeze,” Nolte says. “Green Tea Mojito features organic green iced tea, mojito syrup and fresh mint and a lime wheel garnish. Ginger Peach Palmer combines organic ginger peach iced tea with all-natural lemonade, peach puree and a lemon wedge garnish. And finally, Habanero Breeze includes Island Breeze iced tea, habanero-lime syrup and a lime wheel garnish.”

Nolte adds these drinks hit on some key beverage trends including the popularity of iced teas and incorporating seasonal taste profiles. “Also, the increase in consumers seeking an afternoon day-part beverage helped us create these new drinks to fill that void,” he says.

PJ’s Coffee also will keep this innovative spirit as it goes into the fall. “We’re working on some great fall flavor combinations using Ghirardelli chocolate and additional seasonal flavors,” Nolte says.

Flavor forward

Technomic’s Crecca explains that foodservice operators are pulling flavor influence from a lot of different avenues when developing new beverages.

“Citrus is often popular, and we are seeing more authentic fruit flavors — berries, apple, pear,” she says. “In cocktails, honey and caramel are providing sweetness to new drinks, while cucumber and herbal flavors are lending bright and aromatic elements. Bitter is also trending — Mexican coffee, IPA beers with high [International Bittering Units] (IBUs), bitter aperitifs such as Campari, dark roast coffee.”

 Compared with a few years ago, Crecca notes that beverages followed food trends, often lagging way behind them, but that no longer is the case. “Today, there’s more communication and collaboration between chefs and bartenders, culinary and beverage directors,” she says. “In more and more foodservice operations, beverages and food are seen as equally integral to the overall menu’s positioning and ability to convey the concept to the guest.”