Fresh, natural ingredients and signature offerings, current selling points for food menus, are driving the beverage side as well. Bartenders are eschewing artificially flavored commercial mixers for fresh juices, and chains including Dairy Queen and Wendy’s are pulling away from carbonated soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup on their kids’ menus.
In the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2015 culinary forecast, gourmet lemonade was named No. 1 on the list of chefs’ top five beverage trends. It beat out specialty iced tea and organic coffee.
This summer, many fast-casual and casual concepts are focusing on lemonade to play up freshness. Corner Bakery Cafe’s Executive Vice President, Food & Supply Chain Ric Scicchitano explains the current appeal of lemonades at the Dallas-based chain: “Lemonades and frozen lemonades are powerful offerings as consumers are moving away from carbonated soft drinks toward drinks made with fresh juices and tea.”
Keeping things simple, the 190-unit fast casual boasts that its traditional Old-Fashioned Lemonade and specialty Hibiscus Lemonade (blended with herbal tea) are made with fresh juice, sugar, filtered water and no high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives. Prices for the lemonades run $1.99 to $2.09 for regular and $2.29 to $2.49 for the large size, on par with the chain’s iced tea. Both lemonade flavors have retained strong fan bases and help to boost the check, says Scicchitano. “They have enough impact that we make lemonade a focus every summer.”
Los Angeles-based fast casual Lemonade (No. 11 on Restaurant Business’ 2015 Future 50) serves eight versions of its namesake drink for $3 each. In sync with its menu of “seasonal Southern California comfort food,” the 16-unit chain offers flavors such as cucumber mint, guava limeade and pineapple coriander.
“Real” and “clean” are two forces driving menu development today, said trend tracker Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Company, during an educational session at the National Restaurant Association Show in May—and fresh is the starting point. Lenexa, Kan.-based Applebee’s, which recently added more fresh ingredients to its cocktail recipes, has applied the same thinking to nonalcoholic drinks. Its Strawberry Quencher Lemonade LTO (strawberry puree blended with lemonade and mixed with fresh strawberry slices) proved so successful last year that it’s back for an encore at the chain’s 2,300 locations.
With a price tag of $2.49 to $2.99, Quencher Lemonade is about 20 cents higher than Applebee’s selection of plain lemonades. But customers seem to be willing to pay. “Consumers are looking for items that are real, fresh and refreshing,” says Mike Hurt, Applebee’s director of beverage marketing. “The Strawberry Quencher Lemonade has been a win for us. Last year it significantly improved our sales performance, and we’re excited about the product having another great summer this year.”