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What Drinks Diners Want – US Food Trends

16 December 2009
What Drinks Diners Want – US Food Trends

R&I's Beverage Census Study helps operators deliver the right mix on beverage menus.

This article first appeared in the 1 November 2009 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. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Carbonated sodas, drip coffees and Cabernets won't be departing from drink menus anytime soon, but for foodservice operators, getting ahead of the competition calls for devising beverage lineups that reach beyond the standard playbook.

"Ten years ago when you went into bars or restaurants, you could probably find a lot of the same drinks; now, the expectation is to come up with unique, individual drinks," says Jeff Donahue, beverage director and manager at Chicago's Province, an upscale, Latin-influenced restaurant where libations include rising-star South American wines, locally brewed beer and cocktails such as the Smart Money, a combination of pear-infused bourbon, mint and apple brandy.

That's the approach that Milford, Conn.-based Subway took in introducing fresh-brewed, vitamin-enhanced iced tea in its nearly 22,500 U.S. stores in July. "Five years ago, iced tea was a single-digit beverage [in] serving percentage in the QSR segment; today it represents over 11% of servings," says Dave Zambory, Subway's beverage director. "To keep our market share, we need to ensure that we are staying current with the most-recent trends and give the customer exactly what they are looking for."

Playing to the right audience is essential, whether the target is a broad demographic such as Subway's or a niche market, as is the case for The Lab Gastropub at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. Opened last winter, the casual eatery features an on-trend beverage list that includes gourmet sodas, energy and sports drinks, and the Virgin Collins, a fountain mocktail. Kris Klinger, USC's director of hospitality, says an interesting beverage program helps the concept stand out amid the clutter of choices available to students and also helps better showcase the menu.

"A [cola] and a burger is one thing, but if you're going to have some really unique food, you want to match that with unique beverages, whether they're alcoholic or nonalcoholic," he says.

Essential to an effective beverage-menu makeover is understanding what consumers are drinking-and what they want to drink more of-when they go out to eat. Exclusive data from R&I's 2009 Beverage Census Study, which asked consumers what they order to drink when dining away from home, reveals important insights into who's ordering what.

Sparkling Mimosas

Americans take a pass on alcoholic options on most dining-out occasions, so operators need to be paying attention to pours beyond adult beverages. When dining away from home at full-service or fast-food restaurants (for any meal of the day), consumers order nonalcoholic beverages 72% of the time on average.

Diet cola takes the lead. Thirty-three percent of consumers name diet cola as the soft drink they order most often; the low- or no-calorie beverages now edge out regular cola (chosen by 32%) as the category leader. (In 2008, 34% chose regular cola and 28% chose diet.) The numbers are driven more by females (36%) than males (30%), but the gap may be closing: Twenty-eight percent of males say they have ordered diet cola more often in the past six months, versus 27% of females.

Does your fountain offer root beer? It should. A hefty 20% of Americans- and, notably, 34% of Gen Y diners-have ordered it when dining out in the past six months.

Higher-income households order wine more often when dining out; lower-income households are more likely to choose beer. Americans in households earning $75,000 per year or more order wine an average of 3.3 times per week. In comparison, those earning between $20,000 and $35,000 order it once a week, and those earning less than $20,000 choose it just 0.4 times a week. At the same time, those earning less than $20,000 per year order beer 5.9 times a week on average, as compared with those earning $75,000 or more, who order it 2.9 times a week.

Coffee's growth may be losing steam. Just 11% of consumers say they're ordering coffee more often when dining out this year as compared with last year. The top reasons given for ordering it less often? "Too expensive" (48%) and "health concerns" (24%).

Two for tea: baby boomers and Southerners. On average, Americans drink tea 4.2 times per week when dining out, but frequency climbs to 7.2 times a week among Southerners and 5.8 times among boomers.

- Pumpkin Latte
Diners favor chilled glasses of tea over steaming cups. Sweetened or unsweetened, iced tea far outpaces hot tea in popularity: About one-third of consumers have ordered iced tea in the past six months, compared with 14% who have ordered hot tea. Yet hot tea has its fans, too: Twenty-three percent of Northeasterners and 19% of women have ordered it in the past six months.

They'll take their water bottled and sans bubbles. Asked what type of water they order most often when dining away from home, 43% of consumers said still bottled water. Just 9% chose sparkling bottled water. [Note: Tap water was not included among options; however, 31% of consumers chose "other," which likely refers to tap water in many cases.]

Midwesterners are most likely to make bottled water their beverage of choice. They order it 7.8 times per week on average, much higher than the overall average
frequency of 5.5 times per week. Southerners are at the low end geographically, choosing it only 3.7 times per week.

Milkshakes beat out smoothies, and they're not just for kids. More than three in 10 Americans have ordered milkshakes in the past six months, compared with 14% who have ordered smoothies. And although smoothies are notably more popular among younger consumers and women, interest in milkshakes is solid across demographic groups.

America's most-wanted beverages? Flavored coffees and specialty-brand sodas. Flavored coffees (hazelnut, mocha, etc.), green tea (hot or cold), specialty-brand sodas and flavored bottled water rank as the top items that consumers say they'd like to order but don't usually find on menus.

Carbonated drinks are losing their fizz. Consumers' average frequency of soft-drink purchases when dining away from home dropped significantly in 2009 to an average of 4.7 times a week versus 6.3 times a week in 2008. Americans cite health concerns as the main reason they're cutting back.

Ladies love their cocktails. Make sure cocktails are female-friendly: Women order liquor and cocktails an average of 3.7 times per week when dining out, compared with 1.3 times a week for men. And don't forget drinks that appeal to Gen Y diners, who order cocktails much more often than their older counterparts do.

Consumers are especially brand-conscious when it comes to coffee, and the younger they are the more it matters. Nearly one in three Americans is more likely to order coffee when dining out if brands such as Starbucks, Caribou or Tim Hortons are menued. This figure jumps to 49% for Gen Y and 41% for Gen X.

Is the green movement slowing bottled water's momentum? Just 14% of Americans say they're ordering bottled water more often this year when dining away from home, compared with 25% who said the same in 2008.

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