Forty years ago, when Dr. J. Robert Cade invented Gatorade, he couldn’t have imagined what he’d started. The category of “plus” beverages has surged far beyond sports drinks—it’s huge and growing bigger every year. You can’t afford not to offer some type of plus-drink on the menu. And with the big beverage companies expanding their portfolios, purchasing is easy.
These days just about every kind of quaffable is being enhanced with a pharmacopoeia of additives. The company Function Drinks, for example, has invented a whole line of therapeutic beverages: Brainiac (which allegedly improves mental function), House Call (builds immunity), Light Weight (burns calories), Urban Detox (fights pollutants) and Youth Trip (protects skin). Energy drinks, containing lots of caffeine as well as energy boosters like taurine and guarinine, are a strong-selling category, embraced by younger consumers. Among the top brands are Red Bull, Monster, Rockstar, Full Throttle and Sobe No Fear.
Bottled water goes far beyond plain; fruit-flavored varieties are especially popular. Some brands also add vitamins and other functional ingredients. Borba, marketed by Anheuser-Busch, is a “Skin Balance Water.” Even beer has been enhanced—Stampede Light Beer is fortified with vitamins. And for those who over-imbibe, there are hangover cures, with names like Resurrect Daily Detox.
The brands that led the trend are now being snapped up by giants who are diversifying as traditional soft drink sales fizzle. Coca-Cola acquired Glaceau’s VitaminWater and SmartWater and debuted vitamin-fortified Diet Coke Plus. Pepsi-Cola’s roster includes Sobe and Aquafina. It also debuted Diet Pepsi Max, spiked with ginseng. And venerable Gatorade? It’s owned by Pepsi.
Non-alcoholic energy drinks are a fixture in cocktail culture. Packing high-octane mixtures of caffeine, taurine, ginseng, mate and more, they’ve gained currency with young drinkers as a way to combat the drowsiness of over-imbibing. Their sweet flavors and vibrant colors are made for creative mixology. The Green Apple Buzz cocktail proved so popular during a promotion that Bennigan’s moved the $5 energy drink concoction up to its regular menu. Made by pouring Monin Granny Smith Apple syrup in a glass and topping it with Red Bull creates a colorful layered drink, says Susan Karlen, director of marketing for the casual chain. “It’s a good-looking drink.”
“Red Bull is the 800-pound gorilla,” says Holly Roberts, mixologist for Aspen Restaurant & Lounge in New York. Any bar with a nightlife crowd, she says, has to carry it because customers ask for it by name. The big seller at Aspen, however, is another kind of plus-drink: the Acai Margarita ($12). Acai is a berry packed with antioxidants, anthocyanins, fiber and amino acids. “When acai started showing up in places like Jamba Juice...we didn’t have to explain the cocktail anymore,” Roberts says.
But can a cocktail—even one based on acai—be good for you? “When you start mixing in tequila, I’m not so sure people are drinking it for the health benefit,” Roberts adds.
We’ve been putting healthy additives into our smoothies for a long time,” says Bruce Reinstein, COO of Needham, Massachusetts-based Fresh City, “so our customers are familiar with that.” The 23-unit fast-casual chain offers a smoothie-plus line that includes the Coldfighter (a blend of tropical juices, berries and fruit spiked with echinacea, vitamin C, goldenseal and beta glucan) and the Energizer (limeade and fruit plus ginko biloba, bee pollen, ginseng, gotu kola, kola nut and green tea). Patrons got used to the idea and today, half of its smoothies are pumped up.
“The VitaminWater and SmartWater situation is similar,” notes Reinstein. “To me it’s all a state of mind. I’m not sure that by drinking these things every day you’re going to be running the marathon.”
Whatever the reason, Fresh City restaurants sell lots of Glaceau’s enhanced waters, bottles of which are displayed for grab-and-go sales. Customers are trading up from bottled soft drinks (which Fresh City has discontinued) to the waters, which sell for a premium $2.19. VitaminWater and SmartWater are priced higher than regular bottled water. “It’s a nice package, good looking,” says Reinstein. “People feel they’re getting value.” Fresh City also menus a Glaceau energy water called VitaminEnergy in Dragonfruit flavor for $3.29.
The COO likes the fact that he gets the waters from his Coke distributor. “It’s one-stop shopping, and it increases the volume [that we buy].” Volume purchases can mean discounts. “We’re pleased with the results,” says Reinstein. “The Glaceau waters are flying off shelves pretty fast.”