With consumers reportedly turning away from alcohol in droves, the soft drinks market should be booming. But a lack of exciting, premium options is leaving guests dissatisfied. John Porter explains how to create a winning drinks menu
Given the amount of column inches devoted to analysis of trends and surveys that suggest the nation is turning its collective nose up at alcohol, it might be forgivable to assume that soft drinks are driving wet sales in the out-of-home market.
Inevitably, the reality is a little different. CGA reported in December that on-trade sales of soft drinks were £4.6b, up 2.7% year-on-year. While that makes soft drinks a stronger performer in its own right than key categories like beer, cider or wine, the figure represents only 23.2% of total wet sales, suggesting that a considerable amount of alcohol is still being consumed.
And while it's believed that the public are turning away from alcohol, CGA still describes mixers – usually served with a spirit or in a cocktail – as "the star player in the soft drinks category", with value sales up 20.5%.
There was good growth reported by CGA for lemonade, up 5%, and cola, up by 4.7%. At the other end of the scale, squash, down 15.2%; juice drinks, down 6.5%; and flavoured carbonates, down 6.6%, have all lost market share in the last year.
Part of this is attributed by CGA to more consumers seeking healthier choices in soft drinks, which is most likely due to the roll-out of new or reconfigured recipes by brand owners in response to the government's ‘sugar tax' – the soft drinks levy introduced in 2018. CGA reported that low-sugar cola drinks saw a sales jump of 22.4% in 2019, while full-sugar varieties dropped 13.3%.
Inspired by this turn towards healthier options, Crafted is a range of fruit drinks with no added sugar, sweeteners or preservatives. Christopher Banks, chief executive of Crafted Drinks, says: "Consumers' changing attitudes have helped reshape the British soft drink market over the past couple of years, with many customers now fully embracing the trend for healthier, lower sugar alternatives.
"With a recent survey revealing that 65% of people of all ages are trying to lead a healthier lifestyle, there has never been a better time for caterers to reassess the drinks that they have on offer."
Add a little fizz
While Crafted is just one new brand expanding the market, consumers are still unsatisfied, says CGA client director Dave Lancaster. "Our BrandTrack survey shows that more than half, 55%, of soft drinks consumers agree that the range on offer is often predictable and boring. Many want a wider range and better quality."
While there were 304 new soft drinks launches in 2019, this is much fewer than beer at 1,056 or spirits at 698. "There's clearly a latent demand for new flavours and innovation," adds Lancaster.
More than half of soft drinks consumers agree that the range on offer is often predictable and boring. Many want wider range and better quality" – Dave Lancaster, CGA
Kamila Sitwell, founder of alcohol-free cocktail brand Kolibri, argues that "what this shows is a clear and differentiating time for the drinks market. The UK is on the hunt for a broader, more credible range of no-alcohol drinks that works for everything, from the office Christmas party to summer barbecues to a simple Friday-night beer alternative at the local."
This demand for both innovation and premiumisation has seen a flurry of activity from both established brands and new entrants. Jessica Waller, marketing director for Martin Frobisher's, says: "When a consumer is looking for a soft drink out of home, the expectation is for an interesting beverage that goes over and above standard flavour options.
"Part of our brand mission is to provide a grown-up non-alcoholic offering and inspire the large number of consumers who are choosing not to socialise alcohol free. One way that we encourage operators to consider soft drinks is to pair them with meals in the way a consumer would choose wine. This level of indulgence, and knowledge on the operator's part, is popular with those who are looking for a more premium serve."
Raissa de Haas, co-founder of premium mixer brand Double Dutch, says: "Since consumers crave new experiences and want more choice than ever before, working with flavoured mixers is a great way to introduce diversity to the bar while increasing margins on cocktails and offering consistency and ease for bartenders.
"There are so many different flavour combinations to try, and I think consumers are now more open to experimentation."
The brand offers menu support including design and print, as well as suggested pairings and cocktails, and has found that this can increase premium spirit sales by about 15%. "We like working together with venues to help drive footfall and trial ideas that can be easily implemented; for example, hosting masterclasses or larger activations like terrace takeovers."
Lee Hyde, Monin beverage innovation manager, suggests lifting soft drinks menus with offers such as authentic lemonades, which can be flavoured with syrups and juices. He quotes research showing that 29% of consumers choose a venue based on its soft drinks range, meaning "no-ABV cocktails are more important than ever before. Menus need to reflect this by offering a good variety of styles, flavours and tastes."
He advises giving the same level of attention to non-alcoholic cocktails, such as the virgin mojito – which can be made easily with Monin Mojito Syrup – as to regular cocktails, offering interesting vessels, garnishes, quality flavours and ingredients. Operators must also ensure that no-ABV drink offerings fit with the style or theme of the venue and match customer expectations.
Premium drinks also offer flexibility of use, both front of house and in the kitchen. Marcellin Marc, head chef at Clos Maggiore in Covent Garden, uses the Alain Milliat Jus de Degustation range of juices and pulps. He says: "I'm always looking to source quality ingredients for my cuisine or to accompany my dishes, and I can't find the quality and freshness that Alain Milliat offers elsewhere. The juices and nectars can be served as a drink in its own right, in cocktails, and also in food dishes – as an ingredient in a dessert, for example."
Also appreciating flexibility is gastropub operator Whiting & Hammond, which saw its Blue Ball pub in Walton on the Hill, Surrey, named the Best Soft Drinks Pub at the Star Pub & Bar Awards in February. Like all venues in the group, the pub has installed the Mr Fitz Aqua Spritz system, which dispenses sparkling and still water to combine with the brand's range of concentrates to make soft drinks, mixers, mocktails and cocktail ingredients.
Paul Worman, operations director for Whiting & Hammond, said: "A premium non-alcoholic drinks range is increasingly important to our customers, and we'd been looking for something innovative and different to deliver that. Switching to Mr Fitz Aqua Spritz also removes single-use soft drink, mixer and water bottles from transport, delivery and storage across our sites."
Belvoir Fruit Farms has added two flavours to its ready-to-drink Pressé range, Pink Lady Sparkling Apple Juice and Lime & Soda. Both are made with 100% natural ingredients and are available in 250ml bottles for individual serves and in 750ml bottles for sharing.
Britvic has introduced an Oakwood Spice variant to its Mixer range, containing notes of oak and citrus and designed to be paired with bourbon. The Britvic Dark Spirit Mixers offers new flavour combinations, strengthening operators' dark spirit sales and capitalising on the emerging trend.
The new Supermalt Ginger Beer provides an alternative to standard Supermalt, made using real ginger extract and a delicate hint of lemongrass to add a warming, yet decidedly refreshing kick. Like the traditional drink, Supermalt Ginger Beer is available in both an original and less-sugar variant.
Australian drinks brand Nexba has brought its flavoured sparkling waters to the UK. Naturally sugar free, Nexba is available in watermelon, cucumber and mint; coconut and mango; and strawberry and raspberry varieties.
Maximising soft drinks sales
Advice from Adam Russell, director of foodservice and licensed at Britvic
Presentation is key – Visually striking mixed or non-alcoholic drinks drive sales and command a higher price point with minimal effort. Fresh garnishes, sophisticated glassware and a variety of ice styles all add to the experience and the feeling that the drink is worth paying more for.
Pair drinks with food – Pairing soft drinks with signature dishes also boosts sales and upsells products, while improving the overall experience for customers. Communicate in menus and ensure staff are well-versed on both offerings – consider upskilling the team so that they can make informed pairing suggestions to customers.
Offer exciting low and no options – A strong range of drink options is essential to ensure you are catering for all customer needs. While many will be looking to treat themselves, it's important to consider those looking for more health-focused alternatives, using popular no-sugar options of brands like 7Up Free, Tango Sugar Free and Pepsi Max.
Alain Milliat www.alain-milliat.com
Crafted Drinks www.crafteddrinks.co.uk/foodservice
Double Dutch www.doubledutchdrinks.com
Mr Fitz Aqua Spritz www.mrfitzaquaspritz.com
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