Over 100 years ago, when Restaurant Business magazine was founded as Soda Fountain News, signature soft drinks were the only kind around. Back then, the “soda jerk” was a carbonated confection artist similar to today’s coffeehouse baristas. They juggled jugs of syrups and jerked the handle (and thus the term) of the fountain to dispense soda water, mixing up “phosphates” right in the glass. All that changed when bottled sodas came to market. And today Americans consume over 50 gallons of soft drinks per capita.
Over 100 years ago, when Restaurant Business magazine was founded as Soda Fountain News, signature soft drinks were the only kind around. Back then, the “soda jerk” was a carbonated confection artist similar to today’s coffeehouse baristas. They juggled jugs of syrups and jerked the handle (and thus the term) of the fountain to dispense soda water, mixing up “phosphates” right in the glass.
All that changed when bottled sodas came to market. And today Americans consume over 50 gallons of soft drinks per capita.
Fountain versus ready to drink
When it comes to selling soft drinks in restaurants, there are three main choices: post-mix, pre-mix and bottles and cans—also referred to as “RTD” or ready to drink. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Post-mix: This is soft drinks in bulk, usually packaged in kegs or bag-in-box. They can be hooked to fountain heads or dispensed from guns at the bar. It has the advantage of being easy to use but costs substantially more.
Pre-mix: With pre-mix set ups, you purchase syrup and add carbonated water. Proponents say this makes for a fresher drink. And because you supply your own water, it’s much cheaper and less bulky to handle. However, you do have to fool with unwieldy CO2 tanks and complicated syrup pumps. All that equipment adds to the costs, too. Many operators opt for a lease-to-buy deal with a distributor or manufacturer. The downside here is that you’re locked into the producer’s lineup of branded beverages.
Bottles and cans: Of course, with these you can mix and match. Offer Coke and Pepsi, if you want, and even RC Cola. There’s no bother with cleaning feed lines, like there is with post- and pre-mix, and no waste, either. The disadvantage is handling and recycling all those bottles and cans. They’re bulky, heavy, prone to damage like denting and breakage and take up significant storage space. Usually, RTD soft drinks require chilling down prior to service, too, which means you’ll have to have a dedicated cooler.
Finally, consider how you’ll sell soft drinks. Post- and pre-mix fountains can be set up behind the bar or takeout counter or in the back of the house for tighter control or in the customer area for convenience. Letting customers serve themselves can save labor but you’ll lose money on refills. For bottles and cans, a see-through, customer-accessible reach-in will spark impulse sales; be sure to choose a two-sided reach-in so that it can be restocked as needed from the counter side.
Here come the hybrids
Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes together control 90 percent of the U.S. soft drink market. Usually that kind of consolidation means a lack of choices, but in the soda biz the opposite’s true. The top producers offer an array of choices and are constantly introducing new ones.
One new category gaining steam is hybrid drinks. The Coca-Cola Company has a couple hybrids on tap. Vault is part soda pop, part energy drink. The citrus-flavored beverage has less carbonation than standard sodas but many of the attributes of energy drinks. A no-sugar version, called Vault Zero, is also available. Another hybrid is Dasani Sensations, a cross between Coke’s flavored waters and soft drinks. It’s “a lightly sweetened, lightly flavored, and lightly carbonated water beverage,” according to the company.
Pepsi has introduced a soda-energy drink hybrid called MDX, with the familiar citrus flavor of Mountain Dew, but fueled by a “power pack” of ingredients, including ginseng, guarana, taurine and D-ribose.
Be a real jerk
The proliferation of RTD products indicates customers are thirsting for novelty. An easy way to create a signature drink is to jerk your own sodas—just measure out one of the multitude of flavored syrups available and add a spritz of soda water. These days, commercial bottled syrups are available in an incredible array of flavors, from fruity standards like cherry and boysenberry to exotic concoctions like chocolate biscotti and toasted marshmallow. For the fizz, you can use the bar gun, bottled club soda, fancy mineral waters or even an old-fashioned seltzer bottle powered by CO2 cartridges. Combine syrup flavors and add complementary garnishes; most of the fancy syrup purveyors have loads of recipes to get you started.
Take it one step further by making your own syrups. One easy way is to cook up some simple syrup and infuse it with fruit or whole spices like vanilla bean, cloves or cinnamon sticks. Reducing fruit juices by simmering until thick is another way to create syrups.
A rickey is a term for doctoring up standard soft drinks with syrup and other additions. Try cherry- and vanilla-flavored colas (an old favorite now available in the bottle). Juice up a lemon-lime soda with fresh lime or lemon juice or grate fresh ginger into ginger ale.
Finally, you can whip up your own root beer, ginger beer, birch beer, sarsaparilla, even cola and cream sodas from scratch, using extracts and champagne yeast.