In many cases, the financial crisis of 2008 left many chain restaurant menus in stasis. Beverage executives were forced to focus on staunching the bleeding, not enhancing or enacting new drink programs that matched consumer trends better. The main consumer trend, the important one, was getting customers back to the bar. Anything after that was gravy.
But at least anecdotally, last year was a strong one for beverages. Consumers are still in thrall to cocktails, wines from all over the world make the U.S. the best place for discovery and sampling opportunities, and the growth of craft beer continues to provide a way for smart operators to woo local customers without much fuss.
What will 2013 hold? Consumer fascination with flavor variations, especially those with a tropical tang, will likely continue. A recent report from GuestMetrics LLC, a research firm that analyzes point-of-sale data, suggests flavors like mango, ginger, guava, pineapple and others drove the growth in mixed drink sales in 2012. So, flavored tweaks on classics like the Margarita, Mojito, Caipirinha and other cooling libations, still offer promise, and we can expect more proprietary recipes from chains, following the lead of T.G.I. Friday’s, Old Chicago and Rock Bottom Brewery, which all added new Margaritas and Mojitos to their beverage lineups last year.
Expect a slow but steady return to the classic cocktails, at least those made popular once again by the re-emergence of drinking culture as typified by “Mad Men” and other cultural touchstones. Early last year, Ruth’s Chris Steak House inaugurated a vintage cocktail inspired menu with Moscow Mules and twists on the Manhattan, French 75 and the Hurricane. The recipes were created with contemporary tastes in mind (the Broad Street Hurricane is made with Zacapa Rum, pomegranate juice, lemon and lime juices and Monin Yellow Passionfruit, and the French Quarter 75 gets a dash of elderflower), but the chain realized that customers’ new-found interest in drinks required something other than a broad selection of flavored Vodka and Sodas.
American whiskey has never been better – neither in quality nor value. But chain restaurants have typically struggled to sell much of the stuff beyond the ubiquitous Jack and Coke. That may be starting to change, as one of the quieter effects of the cocktail renaissance has been the introduction of numerous brands of whiskey to new drinkers. Maker’s Mark made its, well, mark by being seen as approachable, especially by female drinkers. Other brands likewise are making an impact with younger consumers, especially women, and so look for signature twists on Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds to be better received this year.
When it comes to wine, Americans still prefer American, but the decrease in interest and sales of Australian wine has been accompanied by a growth in availability and awareness of Spanish wines – whites, reds and sparkling, at every price point and value. Expect those wines to appear more and more on menus in 2013.
And with beer, while all the attention in the industry is going to how much control AB InBev will end up with over the Grupo Modelo brands, the continuing growth of craft beer brands will force many chains to start reconsidering not only what regional stores can carry, but also core lists. Expect the continuing appearance of seasonal brews especially – conversations with beer retailers indicate that they are now a core component in the consumer’s beer buying routine.