Much of the alcohol-free drink “re-think” is happening at the heady high-end of the industry. Still, many mainstream chain operations also are giving virgin drinks greater creative play. For more than 30 years, Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Red Robin Gourmet Burgers has had great success with an alcohol-free beverage program featuring many fresh fruit-laden specialty lemonades and limeades that have profit margins similar to those of traditional cocktails. Beverage sales make up 20 percent of Red Robin’s total food and beverage equation. The split between alcohol and alcohol-free is seven percent to 13 percent, respectively, with 5 percent of the alcohol-free sales attributable to specialty drinks.
Building on its success, Red Robin is pouring more research into alcohol-free drinks that have a lighter, healthier appeal. “We’re absolutely seeing clean, green and healthy thinking affecting our customers’ drink choices,” says Jill Helmerick, food and beverage manager. She reports that more guests are interested in drinks made with fruits high in antioxidants, which explains the success of the Blueberry Pomegranate Limeade Red Robin added to the core menu last year.
Right now, the company is looking harder at fruited teas and iced coffees with a specialty spin. It also will be reformulating smoothies to make them “a lot of fun, but a bit less sweet, with more of a fresh fruit base and less sugar,” says Helmerick.
Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings also is embracing the alcohol-free customer since the chain caters to a young demographic, many under the legal age, says Patrick Kirk, marketing and brand manager. Alcohol-free drinks also are popular during lunch and among mothers, he says. Working with Coca-Cola and Finest Call, the company put together its first alcohol-free lemonade program. Served in specialty glassware, flavors include Wild Berry Mix, Mango and Huckleberry.
“We went with lemonade rather than ‘imitation’ cocktails,” he adds. “We had those before, but we never really promoted them and they weren’t a huge profit center. The margin difference between the lemonade and fountain soda is 75 cents more.”
When asked what inspired him to launch the program, Kirk did not hesitate to name his idol. “Red Robin was our model.”