They may be soft, but they are strong contenders in the battle for market share. The fact is, caterers can't afford to ignore the importance of soft drinks. The number of occasions when consumers are avoiding alcohol is increasing and abstainers expect a credible soft option. It's vital for any catering outlet to know its customer base and offer the appropriate soft drinks range.
Quite a high percentage of customers visiting licensed premises are avoiding alcohol," says Jim Wheel, soft drinks buyer for Whitbread's restaurant section. "It may be that they don't drink alcohol at all, or that they are driving. Many people will also avoid alcohol at lunchtime, or will want to complement it with a soft drink such as mineral water."
Other factors that have influenced the trend towards non-drinking occasions include a greater awareness of health issues and an increase in the number of family meal occasions out of home. All these issues mean caterers need to offer a wider range of soft drinks. Mixers and colas are no longer enough. "While colas are as popular as ever and the usual juices and mixers continue to be part of the repertoire, consumers are increasingly seeking premium and added-value soft drinks, particularly those that offer a feeling of indulgence yet are perceived as healthy," Wheel says.
Premium fruit juice drinks aren't everybody's bag, however, and deciding on the optimum soft drinks range involves acquainting yourself with a few facts. Things such as customer demographics - what is the mix of adults versus children, for example; the outlet's location - is it close to offices or is it an out-of-town destination which has to be driven to; an awareness of what drinking occasions the venue is predominantly used for - is it a popular lunchtime venue or somewhere commonly used for formal meal occasions.
Wheel cites Whitbread's own family-orientated Brewsters branded pub restaurants as an example of how a soft drinks range targets a specific customer base. "Whitbread has developed a range of drinks for its Brewster brand, designed specifically for the children and parents from families of its C1/C2 core target market," he says. "The range offers children's favourites such as fizzy drinks with different colours and flavours. In addition, two new flavours of still fruit flavoured drinks were developed with sports-caps, which kids love. They are also great for parents, because the drink can be quickly and easily closed, thus avoiding messy spillages. Both the fizzy and still drinks have no added sugar."
Value for money is another factor consumers take into account when buying soft drinks in pubs and restaurants, and this is one area where many caterers are not responding to public demand, according to Carl May, director of CCM Hospitality Consultants. "Overcharging for soft drinks is a major issue," he says. "Many caterers are too concerned with making a huge profit margin. In my opinion, it's better to have a loyal customer base. Customers are not totally na‹ve - they know when they are being overcharged. Sometimes the amount charged for soft drinks is obscene. Ideally a caterer should be looking at making a profit margin of about 60% on a soft drink sale, but in many cases this margin is more like 100% or more."
And May doesn't think it necessary to stock a range of drinks specifically aimed at children. "A lot of bars and restaurants will serve these horrendous, brightly coloured drinks, but I would recommend stocking a range of good-quality fruit juices, which could be adapted, maybe using sparkling water, to appeal more to children. Appealing to kids is often a matter of staff using their imagination and making suggestions when asked for a drink for a child."
GlaxoSmithKline has launched Citrus Clear, the first new flavour to join the Lucozade Energy range for 12 years. It says the physical and mental benefits of the drink include helping to maintain concentration, focus and alertness, making it suitable for serving in workplace and education outlets, as well as hotels that stage conferences.
Britvic 0845 7550345
GlaxoSmithKline 020 8047 4000
Caledonian Clear/Beverage Brands 01242 570288
Harrogate Spa Water 01423 730000
Highland Spring 01764 660500
Abbey Well 01670 513113
CCM Hospitality Consultants 0121-559 3833
As with any other soft drink, it helps to know your demographics when deciding which bottled waters to stock. If an outlet has a high proportion of families with young children in its customer base, its worth knowing that those aged two years and under should be served still water and that this must be relatively low in minerals.
For restaurateurs, sparkling water is an absolute must, with many consumers liking sparkling water as an aperitif, according to the Natural Mineral Water Information Service. This trend is encouraged by evidence, in the form of research published in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Herpetology, that fizzy water aids digestion.
The UK bottled water market (including coolers) has tripled in value during the period of 1992 to 2002, and is now worth close to £1b. Packaged natural mineral waters have accounted for a steady two-thirds volume share in recent years and recorded 11% volume growth in the year 2002. The market is forecast to grow by 11% in 2003, and at present on-trade sales account for 54 million litres at a total value of £179m. Clearly, caterers can make a good profit offering natural bottled mineral water to their customers. (Source: AC Nielsen.)
One area of bottled water that caterers are not fully exploiting is flavoured waters, according to Beverage Brands, the company behind Caledonian Clear. "Flavoured water generates £7m on-premise sales but it could be worth a lot more if caterers really grasped the opportunity to develop this sector," claims Karen Salters, marketing manager at Beverage Brands. "Changing consumer lifestyles over the past few years has been a major factor in contributing to the growth of the bottled and flavoured water sector. With consumers increasingly looking for healthier options, they now tend to favour bottled water over traditional soft drinks, but this isn't being reflected on caterers' drinks lists."
Product news As the first British natural mineral water to achieve the Soil Association's coveted organic status for its catchment area, Highland Spring could claim to be the most natural thirst-quencher around. Drawn from a protected underground source deep below the Ochil Hills in Perthshire, the water takes about 15 years to filter through the basalt and sandstone strata to boreholes.
Harrogate Spa Water claims to have benefited from a shift in consumer preference towards British water, with the brand showing a 12% year-on-year growth in value sales during 2003.
Abbey Well has launched a 250ml PET bottle of its Abbey Well Still Fruits brand. The product is available in Citrus, Fruits of the Forest and Peach and Apricot.