A lcohol-free cocktails are accounting for more space on restaurant and bar menus as operators look for additional ways to reach out to guests who may not always want a traditional cocktail—a demographic that is becoming larger by the day.
These drinks are showing up both in seasonal and year-round lists, often emphasizing fresh, clean flavors and the chef-like approach that restaurants use to create them. The category also gives operators an opportunity to offer high-margin drinks at more accessible price points, a much needed tactic during the recent recession.
“We’re known as a restaurant that has something for everyone,” says Heather Berry, the director of beverage and bakery operations for the Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based Cheesecake Factory, the upscale casual dining restaurant chain with 146 stores nationwide. In 2009, Cheesecake Factory sold three million flavored lemonades, priced at $4.50 for an 8-ounce serving, in flavors such as raspberry and strawberry. It accounted for 40 percent of the company’s alcohol-free drinks sales. “Alcohol-free absolutely translates into our beverage program. They enhance our menu-driven offerings.”
Operators such as Berry also say working with key suppliers is a source of inspiration for many innovative drinks in the alcohol-free category. She is not alone in utilizing essential flavor building blocks from popular brands such as Monin, Island Oasis, Torani, Finest Call, Coco López, Jus-Made, Daily’s and Kerry to create her alcohol-free drink offerings. Operators such as Kendra Shier, vice president of branding for the Tampa, Fla.-based, 145-unit fondue chain, The Melting Pot, and Jill Helmerick, the director of beverage for the Greenwood Village, Colo.-based, 440-unit Red Robin casual dining chain, say it’s crucial to have quality ingredients that are consistent and easy to use.
An Emerging Demographic
Talk to operators such Berry and Shier, and they’ll tell you that one of the most under-served segments in their business is the group of customer who doesn’t want a traditional cocktail. These guests, according to Shier, often are demographically desirable 25- to 40-year-old, educated professionals who desire to participate in the cocktail culture but can’t. They might be pregnant, they may not want to drink for personal reasons, or they may be concerned about drinking and driving.
The Melting Pot’s most popular alcohol-free drink is their Blackberry Sage Lemonade, priced at $4 for an eight-ounce serving, made with Monin Blackberry syrup, sage, lemon and blackberries. The drink has proven to be so popular that it has made its way onto the chain’s national drinks menu, where it shares featured space with seven traditional cocktails, priced from $8 to $9.
Albert Schmid, the chairman of the beverage and hospitality programs at Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies in Louisville, Ky. and the author of The Hospitality Manager’s Guide to Wine, Beer and Spirits, notes that restaurants are facing increasing pressures to attract women, and fruiter, lower-calorie drinks are one way to do this. They also offer an opportunity for operators to support responsible consumption in an era when concerns about drinking and driving have heightened.
Operators have taken a variety of approaches to marketing and promoting their alcohol-free drink options. For instance, Lemaire, a New American restaurant in the 262-room Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., used its Farm to Glass campaign to promote its Honeydew Mint Limeade, $6 for a six-ounce serving, an alcohol-free Mint Julep rendition paired with a seasonally offered mint-influenced scallops ceviche dish. Another of its popular non-alcoholic selections is the Cranberry Ginger Tea.
Hemerick at Red Robin menus a changing lineup of alcohol-free drinks throughout the year. For instance, sales of the chain’s Freckled Lemonade, made with fresh strawberries and Minute Maid lemonade, $4 for an unlimited serving, “spikes the whole category,” she says. The chain does four seasonal drink promotions that last from six to 10 weeks. These feature table toppers and an updated beverage menu that focuses on a different alcohol-free drink each time. “We feel like we own this category against our competitors,” she says. Alcohol-free drink sales account for 13 percent of her total drink sales, in part because Red Robin’s core demographic includes teens and tweens, a group that can account for as many as half of the customers during lunch.
Some restaurants promote their alcohol-free offerings by changing up the mix through rotating menus. The Melting Pot complements its four-course, “Big Night Out Promotion,” priced from $41 to $46 and held every six months, with the launch of a new alcohol-free cocktail. That’s how the Blackberry Sage Lemonade debuted in 2009.
Creating drinks that have flavor synergies with menu offerings also has been a successful approach for operators. Deborah Craig, the pastry chef who creates alcohol-free drinks at the Atlanta location of three-location, New York City-based Spice Market, the upscale Asian-influenced restaurant, focuses on drinks that use the southeast Asian flavors found in the chain’s menu items. Her alcohol-free Cherry Yuzu Soda, $4 for a six-ounce serving, features the sour Asian fruit that is a favorite Spice Market ingredient. It also includes Ravifruit Red Sour Cherry and Lychee Purées.
Garnishes on such drinks also have become generous and exotic. Cat Miltenberger, the mixologist at Cretia restaurant in Dallas, which serves upscale home cooking, uses edible flowers for her alcohol-free I Really Love Your Peaches drink, priced at $6 for a six-ounce serving and made with Perfect Purée White Peach Purée, vanilla syrup, cranberry juice and sparkling cider. The stemware used at Cretia is the same high-end glassware as traditional cocktails, including taller highball glasses, Martini glasses and Champagne flutes.
Other operators also have found that serving these drinks in elegant and upscale glasses can increase sales. At Red Robin, the chain’s Tornado glass, which looks like an upside down tornado, has helped boost alcohol-free sales by as much as 10 percent, says Helmerick.
Though alcohol-free drinks often can be less expensive than traditional cocktails by about one-third to one-half, according to Schmid, the margins still are healthy—and, in some cases, exceed those of traditional cocktails. This is somewhat of a gray area, for many operators are reluctant to discuss exact percentages. But operators such as Ben Eubanks, food and beverage director for the Jefferson Hotel, say that alcohol-free drinks, which generally cost less to make, also can be sold at a lower price point with a higher margin.
Schmid says alcohol-free drinks can generally be priced two ways—either as traditional cocktails are priced, with margin added to the cost of the ingredients, or as a specialty item. His take is that alcohol-free drinks can command the same sort of pricing premium that specialty menu items often receive.
A third bonus at the Cheesecake Factory, says Berry, is that such specialty drinks, unlike sodas and iced tea, don’t include free refills. So if a customer wants a second drink, they have to pay for it.
Cocktail margins without the cost? Not a bad trick. ·