Nostalgia comes to the drinks menu

Beverage LTOs are becoming more ubiquitous, but it might not always make sense for an operator jump on a flavor trend.
beverage ltos
Photograph courtesy of vendors

As the globe shrinks and the palette of available flavors grows, somehow we still return to the transportive, comforting tastes of years past. The throwback taste du jour, the Dreamsicle—an orange-and-vanilla popsicle throwback—has taken the beverage world by storm.

Coca-Cola released its first new flavor for classic Coke in a decade in the form of Orange Vanilla. At Mediterranean counter-service darling Kismet Falafel in Los Angeles, guests can wash down falafel sandwiches with a Creamsicle Yogurt drink. In January, Denny’s added an Orange Dreamsicle smoothie to its lineup, featuring fat-free yogurt and orange juice. Then there’s Dunkin’s not-so-secret secret menu item, the Creamsicle Coolatta, which combines existing vanilla bean and orange flavors.

The Dreamsicle redux joins a growing list of flavored beverage LTOs—from s’mores to cereal milk—from restaurant brands looking to capitalize on nostalgia. Smile-inducing throwbacks have featured prominently into Dunkin’s test kitchen strategy of late, evident in holiday LTOs such as Marshmallow Peep, Girl Scout Cookie flavors Thin Mint, Trefoils and Coconut Caramel, and seasonal Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream coffee varieties such as returning fan favorite Butter Pecan, newcomer Pistachio Almond Fudge and the slightly riskier Banana Split, with banana, chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream flavors. “We’re sometimes hesitant around fruit flavors in coffee,” says Patty Healy, senior director of integrated marketing for Dunkin’. So far, the gamble has paid off.

The right combination

As flavored LTOs increasingly differentiate the brand, partnerships and themed offerings have to be relevant and expected for the drinkers they target. “Frozen drinks tend to attract a younger audience who are seeking bold tastes and vibrant colors,” Healy says. Enter Dunkin’s Cosmic Coolatta, its latest frozen drink variation that combines grape flavor with blue raspberry for a technicolor, layered effect that’s also Instagram-friendly.

Cold brew- and espresso-based drinks, on the other hand, favor consumers looking for coffee-forward beverages with flavors “designed to complement, not overpower” their rich product base, where subtler cookie or ice cream flavor add-ins play best, Healy says.

Strategy behind funky flavors

Not all brands are going the “hot flavor” route with the drinks menu. Starbucks actually decreased the number of promotional LTOs offered last year by 30% compared to 2017, citing a lack of sustained growth in its April 2018 earnings call. While the brand still features unique flavored drinks such as the Crystal Ball Frappuccino and seasonal tent poles such as the Pumpkin Spice Latte and S’mores Frappuccino, it has shifted focus back to core beverages, leveraging platforms with broader appeal. For instance, lighter, sweeter Blonde Espresso—initially slated for just a six-week run—can be applied to any existing espresso-based beverage.

Soft-pretzel chain Auntie Anne’s puts a lot of strategic importance on innovation. But because it has 1,300 locations nationwide, the brand rarely chases trends, living firmly in the late-adopter category, which is truer to its business model and customer expectations.

“I can’t afford to have an idea that will only play in a certain region or certain number of stores,”  says VP of Marketing Marcel Nahm. “Our consumer base doesn’t expect to come find the latest turmeric drink at Auntie Anne’s, for example.”

Last summer, the percentage of guests ordering drinks at Auntie Anne’s grew 70 basis points during its limited run of Candy Lemonade Mixers, a co-branded collaboration featuring its flavored lemonade topped with Sour Patch Kids and Swedish Fish.

Nahm is hoping the trend will continue this year with Auntie Anne’s latest beverage offering, Lemonade Frost, which combines frozen lemonade and a vanilla smoothie, plus the option to add blue raspberry, mango or strawberry. So far, drink orders are up. No word on whether a Dreamsicle-flavored LTO is forthcoming.

Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.


Exclusive Content


Restaurants bring the industry's concerns to Congress

Neary 600 operators made their case to lawmakers as part of the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs Conference.


Podcast transcript: Virtual Dining Brands co-founder Robbie Earl

A Deeper Dive: What is the future of digital-only concepts? Earl discusses their work to ensure quality and why focusing on restaurant delivery works.


In the fast-casual sector, Chipotle laps Panera Bread

The Bottom Line: The two fast-casual restaurant pioneers have diverged over the past five years, as the burrito chain has thrived while Panera hit a wall. Here's why.


More from our partners