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Pour It On – US Food Trends

07 February 2008
Pour It On – US Food Trends

This article first appeared in the 1 January 2008 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 R&I, visit its website here >>

Even regular customers rarely order food without glancing at a menu, yet the no-look order is common when it comes to drinks. Now such passive attitudes are becoming passé as beverages break free from afterthought status. "People used to come in and just order, but increasingly, they're asking for drink menus," says Niles Peacock, master mixologist at STIR Lounge at The Platinum Hotel & Spa in Las Vegas. "They want to see the product line put out by each venue."

The simple act of asking what's available reflects both a sea change in how customers think about and order beverages and consumers' heightened expectations of discovering unique, intriguing choices.

What piques their interest? Craft beers. Premium spirits. House-made mixers. Vitamin-fortified water. Food-and-beverage pairings. Fair-trade coffees. Teas of all kinds. More alcohol-free choices. All of these trends share an underlying theme: consumers' newfound view of beverages as not just accessories to meals or gatherings but as elements integral to the dining experience.

Several ahead-of-the-curve operators already are capitalizing on this opportunity. Tampa, Fla.-based Outback Steakhouse touts "spirit-free" cocktails crafted from fresh fruits, flavored syrups, energy drinks and ginger ale; Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group offers organic, fair-tradecertified coffees and teas to all higher-education and business-and-industry accounts; and concepts as diverse as Washington, D.C.- based Pizzeria Paradiso and Portland, Ore.-based upscale seafood chain McCormick & Schmick's promote beer-and-foodpairing dinners.

Ready to get in on the action? Check out the following strategies, all brimming with potential.

•Distinguish drinks with unique housemade components. The term "housemade" implies a level of quality and attention that consumers find irresistible as much when it comes from the bar as when it comes from the kitchen. At STIR Lounge, Peacock mixes more than 30 house-made liqueurs he calls "cellos" to flavor signatures such as The Ginger Bullet (ginger root cello, bourbon, a splash of cola) and Fear and Loathing (vanilla cello, cherry-infused vodka, absinthe). "People want something different and noteworthy that they can go back and talk to their friends about," he says.

Upscale steakhouse concept Zed 451, based in Emeryville, Calif., prepares Cranberry Spiced Old Fashioneds with house-infused spiced-hazelnut bourbon and muddled clementine oranges. A few restaurants, including Per Se in New York City and Park Kitchen in Portland, Ore., go so far as to make their own tonic water; others create specialty bitters, sodas, mixers and even ice.

•Bring out the best in beverages with complementary food pairings. Wine dinners are all the rage, but tastings that marry food with atypical beverages from bourbon to beer are even hotter tickets. Unique food-and-beverage pairings not only set restaurants apart, but also they educate guests and make them think differently about drinks, says bartender John Kinder, who matches a threecourse tasting menu with cocktails every Tuesday at mk restaurant in Chicago.

Beverage Buzzwords What will customers thirst for from beverages this year? â- House-made â- Fair-trade â- Single-origin â- Bar chefs/gastro-bartenders â- Functional/fortified â- Regional American wines â- "Healthy" cocktails â- Beer-based drinks â- Savory cocktails â- Better wines by the glass â- Organic wine/beer/spirits â- Craft beer â- Molecular mixology

At Park Place on Main in Louisville, Ky., bourbon headlined a recent fourcourse pairing dinner, while Asianinspired restaurant Cygnus 27 Hotel in Grand Rapids, Mich., married multiple courses with sake at a recent reopening celebration. Some concepts recommend pairings right on the menu. At Dallasbased casual-dining chain Boston's The Gourmet Pizza, colored wineglasses printed next to descriptions of pasta dishes indicate which wine varietal will match the dish best. Bon AppétÁ­t Management Co.'s Taste restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum offers a "Flights and Bites" menu with selections of three wine tastes and three complementary small plates.

•Upgrade to broader, better coffee and tea choices. That quick-service, family- dining and noncommercial operators are widely embracing premium coffee and tea products is a testament to consumers' escalating interest in them. Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. reported a 39% increase in coffee sales between January and October of 2007 thanks to its upgraded, stronger blend and plans to add espresso drinks this year. Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's new, proprietary blend was the linchpin for a big breakfast rollout last year, and Compass Group-owned Canteen Vending Services recently launched a new premium-coffee platform that features sustainable and fair-trade-certified blends. Meanwhile, Carlsbad, Calif.-based family-dining chain Coco's Restaurant & Bakery added espresso bars to its restaurants.

Tea, too, is on the upswing. Fine-dining restaurants and hotels are delving into loose-leaf varieties, afternoon tea promotions and tea-based cocktails, while dedicated chains cropping up across the country include Argo Tea Café in Chicago and T Salon in New York City.

•Draw attention with eye-catching presentations. Nothing sells like a spectacle. Just ask Alon Shaya, chef de cuisine of Besh Steak at Harrah's New Orleans, where servers freeze drinks from margaritas to champagne tableside using liquid nitrogen in vacuum flasks. "When we do it for one person, it puts on such a show that we know we'll be doing it the rest of the night," he says.

Lower-key theatrics work just as well. Plano, Texas-based Bennigan's Grill & Tavern uses custom branded shakers to prepare premium versions of two popular drinks, the Tilted Tea and the Juicy Rita, at tables. For other restaurants, tableside carts are an attention- grabbing tool. They carry the accoutrements for making Bloody Marys at contemporary American restaurant Viand in Chicago and for mixing mojitos at Havana Central in New York City.

Something in the Water Americans drink more bottled water than they drink any other beverage outside of soft drinks, and unlike carbonated drinks, bottled water remains one of the beverage sector's top growth segments. Consumers' thirst for the portable, healthful drink is likely to continue in 2008, even as some operators, such as upscale Asian chain Big Bowl in Chicago and the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., are eschewing the product in favor of water filtered in-house-a product seen as more environmentally friendly. At the other end of the spectrum are restaurants playing up bottled water's swanky side. Italian steakhouse DeVito South Beach in Miami offers five varieties- three still, two sparkling-on a water menu that details the origins of each eau. At Hershey Lodge, a resort in Hershey, Pa., two restaurants menu a super-high-end brand of "couture water" priced at $45 per bottle.

•Go functional. As energy drinks' explosive growth illustrates, beverages that do more than quench thirst hold huge appeal for consumers. Enhanced and vitamin-fortified waters are flooding the marketplace, while sales of smoothies, long associated with nutritional supplements, have grown 80% in the past five years, according to Chicago-based research firm Mintel.
The functional craze has reached even coffee and cocktails. Dallas-based convenience- store chain 7-Eleven sells Fusion Defense Coffee, fortified with herb extracts such as echinacea and ginseng. So-called "healthy cocktails" such as the Look Better Naked Margarita at Nacional 27 in Chicago and berry-flavored martinis at Washington, D.C.-based The Palm Restaurant Group promote fresh fruit juices and high-antioxidant components such as aÁ§ai berries.

•Learn that it doesn't take alcohol to make drinks exciting. Consumers who pass on alcohol still want a great beverage, and operators can reap big rewards from relatively simple formulas. At Louisville, Colo.-based Rock Bottom Restaurants, nonalcoholic refreshment takes the form of "faux-jitos" made from watermelon syrup, fresh watermelon, mint leaves and soda. Cindy Busi, beverage director at Orlandobased Hard Rock Cafe, says that the decision to build a line of "mocktails" around Hard Rock's souvenir glassware jump-started a big sales opportunity. With drinks delivered in martini, margarita, hurricane and Pilsner glasses, the "Alternative Rock" menu highlights ingredients such as fresh fruit and juices, sweet-and-sour mix and syrups in trendy flavors such as pomegranate and blood orange. "There was a concern the new drinks might just cannibalize soda sales, but we've seen a big lift in alcohol-free sales," Busi says.

•Look to food trends for clues. Menu buzzwords such as organic, sustainable, seasonal and local apply to beverages, too. Chef David Burke's new Primehouse in New York City boasts drinks made from seasonal ingredients and herbs (including mint leaves from a vine growing behind the bar), while Border Grill in Santa Monica, Calif., offers organic-tequila tastings. Frontera Grill in Chicago is one of many restaurants now serving organic beer, and Urbana Restaurant and Wine Bar in Washington, D.C., proffers a list of eco-friendly and organic wines. On the coffee front, fair-trade certification (which addresses issues such as fair wages and sustainability) is a selling point that speaks to Americans' growing interest in socially responsible food production.

"It's becoming more mainstream to look at what you're buying and where it's coming from," says Husein Kitabwalla, senior vice president of the Allentown, Pa.-based Retail Brand Group (a Sodexho subsidiary), whose Jazzman's Café concept purchases coffees only from sustainable sources that use environmentally friendly and fair-trade practices. "For the current generation, these environmental and social issues are being ingrained as a way of life, and over the course of time, people are going to make choices based on those ideas."

Sweet Sunrise
Hard Rock Café, multiple locations
Yield: 1 serving

Orange juice 3 oz.
Blood-orange syrup 2 oz.
Sweet-and-sour mix 2 oz.
Cranberry juice 1 oz.
Sugared orange slice to garnish

Pour orange juice, blood-orange syrup, sour mix and cranberry juice into cocktail shaker. Fill margarita glass with ice; add to shaker. Shake well; pour into margarita glass. Garnish with sugared orange slice.

Look Better Naked Margarita
Manager/Beverage Director Adam Seger
Nacional 27, Chicago
Yield: 1 serving

Rosemary, divided use 4-in. sprig
Reposado tequila 1½ oz.
Juice of 1 lime, freshly squeezed
Organic agave nectar ¾ oz.
Organic aÁ§ai juice ½ oz.
Organic egg white ½ oz.
Organic salt as needed
Organic green peppercorns, freshly cracked as needed

  1. Cut top inch from rosemary sprig; reserve for garnish. Remove leaves from remaining stem; muddle leaves in cocktail shaker until aromatic.
  2. Add tequila, lime juice, agave nectar, aÁ§ai juice and egg white to shaker with ice; shake vigorously until shaker is frosted.
  3. Coat rim of chilled, 10-oz. cocktail glass with mixture of equal parts organic salt and organic green peppercorns. Strain cocktail into glass; float reserved rosemary sprig on top.
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