A thirst for culture

Ethnic beverages reinforce authenticity.

Considering the popularity of ethnic restaurants—Chicago-based research firm Technomic reports that 38 percent of consumers patronize them weekly—it’s fitting that operators are bolstering authenticity with complementary drinks. Highlighting ethnic flavors in specialty beverages is a way to boost revenue.

At the 71-unit Café Rio Mexican Grill, based in Salt Lake City, housemade horchata—a rice-based beverage flavored with cinnamon—is a favorite. “Due to demand, we moved it, along with our Southwest limeade, made in-house with Jamaica flowers and hand-pressed mint, out to our self-serve Ultimate Drink Bar for better visibility,” says COO Abe Hollands. The horchata and limeade  now share prime space with branded fountain drinks at the fast-casual chain.

The housemade drinks are not upsold; instead they are available for $1.99, the same as the soft drinks. “These signature beverages have been a key differentiator for us,” Hollands says. [For our customers] it lends instant credibility when they see our beverage bar. They know and understand that we make all of our food from scratch, and drinks fall within the same scope.”

In the San Francisco Bay area, Curry Up Now specializes in Indian street food via five roving trucks and three restaurants. Co-owner Rana Saluja says she added a trio of cooling lassis to tame the food’s heavier spices; they also strengthen the connection to the Indian menu. The different versions—mango, rose mango and mint mango—all are based on yogurt and made in-house; they sell for $3 each. Saluja and her servers encourage patrons to order a lassi with a samosa or tikka masala burrito to introduce them to the flavor pairing. She says the surge of interest has spiked profits. “The unique, healthy lassis have inspired guests to buy more items from our food menu as well,” she says.

At Big Bowl, the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Chinese-Thai concept, creative director Patricia Yeo introduced drinking vinegars in hibiscus, grapefruit and cranberry-orange. “We do wonderful lemonades and ginger beers, so an ‘adult soda’ was the next logical step,” Yeo says. “Vinegars cost only pennies to make and unlike other fruit juices, they have an infinite shelf life.” Also known as shrubs, the vinegars are made with fruits or herbs and left to ferment.

The drinks are visually striking, served in mason jars with a spritz of club soda for effervescence. “I find that if we get one or two out in the dining room, the drinks sell themselves,” says Yeo. But Big Bowl’s servers are the best merchandising tool. “They are so impressed by the intensity and flavor that they do a good job selling it,” she adds. In fact, one employee tells guests that if they try a drinking vinegar and don’t like it, he will pay for it out of his own pocket. So far, that hasn’t happened. 


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