Cocktails, wine, soft drinks and coffee and tea are all high-margin menu items that restaurateurs traditionally count on to boost the check. But with takeout and delivery dominating restaurant meals during the pandemic, beverage sales have suffered. Most consumers have drinks on hand and frequently do not add them on to an order.
That said, operators have tried to recoup sales with special deals, new formats and other adaptations. Some of these will continue to evolve into 2021, forecasters predict. And other trends are poised to gain traction.
Canned and bottled cocktails
Canned and bottled cocktails have accelerated in popularity, with alcoholic drinks to go becoming the only way to sell booze during quarantine. Many states relaxed the laws around selling cocktails with carryout and delivery orders and restaurants rose to the occasion by upgrading their selection and quality. Cocktails bottled by the restaurant or hotel’s bartender became signatures and cocktail kits with all the fixings combined a drink with an educational activity.
Not only will restaurants and bars continue to jump on this trend into 2021, more operators will embrace commercially made canned cocktails from boutique brands. Marriott International is expanding its canned cocktail menu, and high-profile independent restaurateurs such as Ashley Christiansen and Renee Erickson are seeing good sales from well-crafted canned cocktails. The safety and sanitation concerns that have arisen due to COVID-19 will continue to drive interest in this category.
Hot cocktails were named “the beverage trend of 2021” by AF&Co./Carbonate in the company’s annual forecast. Restaurants and bars built up their outdoor dining spaces to generate business during the pandemic, and with the winter months looming ahead, hot drinks will be in demand to attract customers and keep them warm. Along with the classics such as Irish coffee, hot buttered rum and hot toddies, operators are crafting creative signature drinks. Both Dead Rabbit in New York City and Sobre Mesa in Oakland, Calif. are offering variations on spiked cocoa. Hot cocktails incorporating tea, mulled wine and cider are also emerging as options.
Virtual cocktail bars
The virtual cocktail bar may be a viable option of the future. Last month, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises launched “Gin and Juice,” a bar that focuses on takeout and delivery only, much like a ghost kitchen. The concept is headed by LEYE Beverage Director Kevin Beary and the team behind Chicago tiki bar, Three Dots and a Dash. Gin and Juice offers individual and large format cocktail kits for groups, including everything from spirits to fresh-squeezed juices, hand-crafted cordials, garnishes and even bar tools, specialty cocktail ice and mugs as an add-on. Customers view the menu online and can order via third-party platform Tock. With the proliferation of virtual restaurant concepts, the virtual bar seems to be an idea with legs.
Interactive beverage education
Interactive beverage education will continue. Wine and cocktail education via Zoom was a big trend in 2020, with virtual cocktail making and wine tasting sessions gaining popularity for people during quarantine. Kimpton Hotels embraced this trend via Virtual Social Hours, giving bartenders and sommeliers a chance to connect with consumers directly, sharing the stories behind the wines and drinks they create. After months of being limited to online interaction, consumers are seeing how these virtual classes truly can expand their horizons.
Flavor-forward, health-promoting drinks
Flavor-forward, all-natural non-alcoholic drinks are a growing channel. Small batch, bottled booze-free beverages created to taste like classic cocktails are catching attention from consumers. Curious Elixirs is one specialty company producing these alcohol-alternatives. The line includes boozeless spins on classic cocktails, such as the Negroni, Bee’s Knees and Aperol Spritz, crafted with organic juices. Several are infused with stress-relieving adaptagens, such as ginseng, turmeric, holy basil and damiana, an ancient Mayan herb.
Beverages like these fit with one of Technomic’s top trends for 2021: Menu cleansing. The market researcher predicts that we should expect more food and drink items with ingredients that cleanse the body, such as immunity boosters. Among those to sip will be health-promoting soft drinks, juices, drinking vinegars and mocktails.