Borrowing from soda-fountain culture and responding to food trends, chains take a shot at customizing soft drinks.
This article first appeared in the 15 July 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about, visit its website here >>
By Jamie Popp, Senior Editor
Lots of flavors, lively tastes and custom orders stand high among consumer trends bringing vitality to chain menus. The same influences have moved to the beverage realm, shaking up soda spigots that for years pumped lineups that rarely ventured beyond cola, diet cola, lemon-lime and orange.
As with foods, guests expect greater range and quality in chain drink menus. "There is willingness from the consumer to experiment with beverages," says David Henkes, principal at Chicago-based Technomic.
At Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Johnny Rockets, syrups allow sodas to be customized with shots of chocolate, cherry, vanilla, lemon or strawberry. Even Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's is throwing a curve to customers who want more at the fountain. Flavor shots added to drinks are being tested at units in Bryan, Texas, according to Bill Whitman, spokesman for the chain.
Shots-intensely flavored syrups first popularized at coffee concepts-can be added to nearly any liquid, whether hot, cold or partially frozen. As the range of syrup flavors grows so do creativity and the opportunity to maximize an operation's liquid assets. Though they come across as very contemporary, shots are steeped in nostalgia, borrowed from the era of soda fountains, when syrups flavored plain soda.
Fun and Games
At Sonic, such flavorings fit the drive-in menu but also the taste preferences of its adventure-seeking patrons, especially teens. "It's clear that our brand is in line with where consumers are going overall. They want variety and the ability to customize," says Todd Townsend, chief marketing officer. "No matter what the guest wants and whatever they can think of, we'll make it for them."
Though the majority of Sonic Drive-In consumers choose carbonated drinks, Townsend says there's a growing demand for alternate beverages, including tea. The company launched peach- and raspberry-flavored teas in April. More recently it added cranberry and apple juices, flavors that can be mixed with any drink on the menu, a tailored-taste trend that appeals to all ages, especially young customers.
Teen tastes are reflected in such Sonic offerings as cranberry limeades and cranberry and apple slushes. The demographic also is drawn to vibrant and colorful drinks such as blue coconut, watermelon and cherry limeade. To reach and build relationships with its younger guests, Sonic launched http://www.slush44.com/-a Web site that "gives teens a place to play games and music and learn about our brands," Townsend says. One of the games allows them to concoct virtual drink combinations and share the formulas with friends via e-mail.
As part of its initiative to expand business beyond breakfast, Denny's has added a line of Fusion Favorites, including Strawberry Mango Pucker and Pineapple Dream. The drinks are based on juices already in rotation at the Spartanburg, S.C.-based chain. Last month, 1,571 locations began using proprietary syrups including strawberry-banana, pineapple, raspberry, peach and strawberry-mango.
"We started the program by combining soft drinks and juices but weren't quite satisfied," says Lisa Munro, senior manager of brand marketing who worked on the beverage program. "We came up with a line of flavor shots in different combinations." And because looks count, "Fusion Favorites don't skimp on garnishes; we serve them with a fresh lime wedge or a maraschino cherry," Munro adds.
Drinks at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, which include Mango Bango Limeade-a mix of mango and passion fruit syrups, lemon-lime soda and orange and pomegranate juices-and its signature Freckled Lemonade with strawberries, are served in a tornado-shaped glass and garnished with fresh fruit.
"You always hear someone order cola and lime, but we are trying to come up with fun, innovative drinks and to discover new combinations," says Kim McBee, vice president of marketing of the Denver-based Red Robin.
Red Robin's Freckled Lemonade in a tornado-shaped glass