Smoothies, tea and coffee drinks offer great opportunities to round out a beverage program.
“What can I bring you to drink?”
Often, these are (or should be) the first words a customer hears from a server’s lips. Increasingly, the answer is “I’ll have a smoothie,” “Bring me a frozen cappuccino,” or “What sort of loose-leaf tea do you have?” While beverage alcohol grows in importance as the day wears on, non-alcoholic drinks remain viable from morning to night.
The unspiked beverage segment, with its round-the-clock appeal, commands a huge portion of the $336 billion foodservice pie.
“I see a huge increase in demand for non-alcoholic beverages–directly attributable to the public awareness of coffee as a specialty item,” says T.J. Tarateta, a third generation member of family-owned Ammirati Inc., importer of espresso machines and coffees from Italy for nearly 40 years, which now also supplies specialty beverage service items and consults with fine dining establishments and chains on non-alcoholic beverage programs.
“And, therefore, closer attention is being paid to these items by restaurateurs.”
When Lynn’s Paradise Cafe was looking for some creative coffee ideas, they turned to supplier Consumers Choice Coffee. Company exec David Lange responded with help developing recipes for, from left, Strawberries and Cream, Cherry Bon Bon, Nut Tree Mocha and Caramel Turtle. Many syrup, coffee, tea and ice cream companies, like most spirit firms, frequently offer help to restaurateurs in designing their own signature non-alcohol beverage program. Call Consumers Choice at (800) 633-7958. Also try syrup manufacturer Monin at (800) 966-5225, beverage mix supplier Island Oasis at (800) 777-4752, frozen mix company Lanikai at (888) 297-5874 and Coco Lopez at (800) 341-2242.
Indeed, those who focus on the full range of non-alcoholic drinks and actively promote them as part of an overall beverage strategy, are betting on the continued growth in specialty coffees, teas, juices and the like, all of which can command superpremium prices. Experts agree: ignoring non-alcoholic beverages means missing out on sales in a lucrative and popular category.
Retailers who want to incorporate high-quality tea service into their mix should look to Chai of Larkspur for inspiration. The four-year-old tea salon is “a jewel box of pearls of conversation, an exquisite setting for some of the finest teas available,” says proprietor Betty Shelton, who pursued her tisane dreams after 20 years in corporate America, which included stints at General Mills and Quaker Oats.
Shelton believes a recent increase in customers, especially those drinking green tea, is “partly due to health and partly to publicity. Some of my tea companies are coming out with more varieties of green teas, such as Darjeeling green,” she says. “Importers are doing things to fill the increased desire for the product.”
While Shelton focuses on proper tea service at her 66-seat establishment, she sees many restaurateurs making errors that could prove costly in terms of missing sales and profit potential. “Most of what I see is not high-quality tea,” she laments, citing reliance on tea-bags as a common error. Her advice: scrap the tea bags and investigate premium loose-leaf products. When you do prepare tea, make sure the water is boiling hot and use a pre-warmed pot for brewing. Also, “don’t rely on the color of the tea in the pot or cup to tell you it’s ready for serving. Most people do not steep their tea long enough. I recommend at least five minutes,” she advises, although teas have different optimum brewing times..
Full-service restaurateurs should note that Shelton’s tea business does not come at the complete expense of beverage alcohol: a small selection of spirits complement her service. “People mostly come for the tea,” she says “but we do get people who want a glass of wine before and a glass of sherry after. In fact, it’s usually not one or the other but both.” The tea room’s concise wine list features one selection of champagne, chardonnay, merlot, syrah, port and sherry at $5.50 to $8 per glass. A sparkling non-alcoholic pear-apple beverage, as well as steeped-to-order iced tea, are also popular. Additionally, Shelton says she is experimenting with a tea smoothie for the upcoming months.
Bottomless pots of teas brewed from loose leaves accompany traditional and nouveau tea foods, such as the Chai Classic, a tiered tray filled with tea sandwiches (cucumber, pear, toasted walnuts and smoked salmon spreads); tea scones with Devonshire cream, lemon curd and preserves; lemon curd squares, spiced apple bread and shortbread cookies, paired with a pot of Earl Grey tea, for $17.
Even coffee drinkers are swinging over to tea, says Shelton. “I surprise them by finding teas they may like in place of coffee,” she says, offering a tip for other beverage managers, who may find success introducing their coffee-loving customers to an equally flavorful alternative, especially later in the day.
Brothers Jim and Rich Millican have hit paydirt at their three-year-old, two-location smoothie enterprise, Smoothieville, in North Carolina, with 12 made-to-order blended beverages, seasonal specials and customizable options, which alleviate what Jim Millican calls the “deer in the headlights” feeling customers sometimes experience when bombarded with beverage options.
Jim Millican says he sees more smoothie chains and full-service restaurants that serve smoothies entering the market “because a restaurant is looking at margins, and beverages have the best,” he says. “Full-service restaurants generally don’t overlook any beverage opportunities.” Or shouldn’t.
A growing number of restaurants are embracing the trend and incorporating specialty smoothies into their operations. At Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a casual theme restaurant inspired by the movie Forrest Gump, the Alabama Sweet Smoothie–made with peanut butter, chocolate and low-fat vanilla yogurt–and Lt. Dan’s Fresh Start–made with apples, oranges, apple juice and low-fat vanilla yogurt–are among the unique choices. They are also available with alcohol added.
Even brewpubs can get into the specialty non-alcohol act. At San Francisco’s popular Beach Chalet, head brewer Scott Turnnidge’s house-brewed root beer gains some charm and froth with a dollop of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and, of course, a cherry on top.
But perhaps the clearest indicator of the smoothie’s popularity is the introduction of a new line of Frozen Smoothie products from premium ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s. Explaining its decision to enter the category, the company noted that the juice bars where smoothies are customarily sold are being likened to coffeehouses, with customers making regular daily visits for their breakfast in a glass.
There’s no end in sight to the specialty coffee boom. According to the National Coffee Association, from 1997 to 1998, 65% of the U.S. population drank coffee at least once per week, and the consumption figures continue to climb each year. This represents a boon to restaurateurs and café owners alike, who realize the potential in a cupful of brew. “Coffees represent a much higher return on investment when compared to alcohol,” says Tarateta of Ammirati. “A typical cappuccino should cost no more than 19 cents, even when factoring in the cost of a high-end espresso machine. In New York City, at any restaurant worth its salt, this 19-cent investment will return up to $3.50.”
At Café Gitane, they appreciate the worth of a good cup of specialty coffee. “Coffee is the heart of our business,” says owner Luc Levy of his five-year-old French café. Café Gitane “once was lost between Chinatown, Little Italy and SoHo,” says Levy, but now experiences success in tandem with the neighborhood, dubbed NoLIta, or North of Little Italy. A short list of red, white and rose wines, champagnes and beer complement the bistro delights. But Levy discovered just how crucial specialty coffee was to his café when his old-fashioned, piston-lever espresso machine broke down for a few days. “People walked in, saw we didn’t have coffee, and turned around and walked out,” he says. Needless to say, Levy now makes sure his machine is properly cared for every day.
Coffee is also a hot commodity at Lynn’s Paradise Café in Louisville. While the full-service restaurant is famous for its Bloody Marys that are crowned with pepper skewers, patrons heed the call of the café’s wide variety of specialty coffees. “This morning,” says day manager Will Aiken, “we had 42 people lined up before the café opened. I went outside with a huge pot of coffee and mugs for them while they waited.”
Non-alcoholic beverages, he says, remain the crux of the café’s mostly morning business, with espresso, cappuccino and even a Frozen White Cow (steamed milk, chocolate syrup, vanilla syrup and espresso mixed in a blender with ice and topped with homemade whipped cream for $3.50) as popular picks. Coffee is so critical to business at the 170-seat café that they give it away on Saturdays at the front waiting area–and they even throw in a free Louisville Stoneware mug to take home.
Aiken attributes this café’s coffee success to time spent choosing the right coffee and the right supplier. He should know; in a restaurant he recently owned, he says, “We had a problem. The [supplier’s] service was bad.” At Lynn’s, he says, the supplier spends much time making sure the café staff properly care for and clean the coffee equipment. And, he adds, the coffee itself is a better blend.
Levy says that restaurateurs are often quick to fall for supplier specials, like a free espresso machine in return for buying their brand of coffee. “It may seem like a good deal,” he says. “But it’s a trap.” Advises Levy, rather than end up with a machine just because you could get it for free by purchasing coffee, investigate coffees you like and machines you like, and buy them because they are the best.
Coffee, like other non-alcoholic beverages, is almost so simple that it’s sometimes overlooked. When your servers ask your customers, “Can I bring you desert?”, the last reply you want to hear is, “Just the check, please.” If you give people plenty pleasing non-
alcoholic beverage options, you’ll be more likely to hear, “I’ll have a house-special cappuccino,” and with it the cha-ching of the register after the meal.
When Greg Fearing, general manager of Winston’s Restaurant at the National Center for Hospitality at Sullivan College, Louisville, whips up blender or ice cream drinks that inclde spirits, he makes certain the versions can be adapted to flavorful and refreshing non-alcohol beverages. Here are the recipes for just two of his creations.
2 oz. cranberry juice
3 0z. Stolichnaya Razberi
1 oz. Grenadine
6 oz. vanilla ice cream
Combine all ingredients in a blender.
Garnish with a raspberry kabob.
For the non-alcoholic version, simply omit the vodka.
6 oz. vanilla ice cream
1 1/2 oz. plus a dash of blue cura