Specialty soft drinks continue to lure customers away from traditional colas and other brand-name sodas, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based research firm. Restaurant operators also are smitten with housemade sodas in unconventional flavors because they both complement the menu and drum up sales.
Beverage leader Starbucks jumped on the trend in June, unveiling a line of handcrafted sodas that are carbonated fresh at select locations. The three flavors—Spiced Root Beer, Golden Ginger Ale and Lemon Ale—are designed to pair with Starbucks’ food.
In New York City, Bubby’s two locations drive home its Americana concept through myriad soda-fountain drinks. “Soda is distinctly American, and so the soda fountain is important to our vision. We just want to do it better,” says chef-owner Ron Silver. “We make great burgers and cola from scratch, so that’s a good starting point to engage our guests.”
Classic flavors such as root beer and orange—based on vintage recipes—are served, but so are unique concoctions such as a sour-cherry phosphate or a currant sour, the latter pairing apple-cider vinegar and currant soda. Priced at $5 each, the sodas boost check averages. To add an interactive element, guests can invent hybrid sodas from the list of syrups. Bubby’s delivers these to the table in single-serve bottles.
Crafting these syrups in house, says Silver, is cost-effective, because the team utilizes ingredients that would otherwise go to waste, such as citrus zests and peels, along with second pickings from the farmers market. “The whole process is flexible and easy to manage,” says Silver. “We store the syrups in large containers in the walk-in, then pour them into smaller containers to bring out front.”
While cocktails are a draw at Vernick Food & Drink in Philadelphia, beverage manager Vincent Stipo understands the importance of serving alcohol-free drinks as well. Two signatures are the Cucumber Smash, made with juiced English cucumber, vanilla bean, muddled lemon and mint over crushed ice, and a highball-style soda with juiced pineapple, yuzu, sparking water and basil salt. “Conceptually, we approach these in the same way we do our food—whatever’s fresh and in season—so integrating the sodas into our program is actually quite seamless,” says Stipo.
The sodas—priced at $5 or $6 instead of $3 for a branded one—are made to order, conserving storage space. They are printed on the menu, and trial is encouraged. “We point out the mocktail section if we notice that the guest hasn’t looked and is blind-ordering standard soft drinks. The servers are trained to discuss the flavor profiles and modify according to different palates,” he says.
Just like ordering “Bartender’s Choice” will yield a surprise cocktail at Vernick Food & Drink, a patron who orders a house special soda may be served a drink blending blueberry shrub, ruby grapefruit, fresh tarragon and small-batch tonic.“It offers an exciting outlet to those not drinking alcohol,” says Stipo.