The Million Dollar Questions: What do Guests Want to Drink, and Why?

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What do guests want to drink, and why? These are questions that have long preoccupied beverage executives. During his “Trends Supercharged” presentation at the recent VIBE Conference in San Diego, Jack Li of Datassential shared details about his firm’s look into why customers drink what they drink, along with what’s currently trending.

For example, his research shows that nearly half (47 percent) of bar and restaurant customers order beverage alcohol to relax. The other important reasons: taste was cited 34 percent by respondents, followed by fun (31 percent), and to socialize (22 percent).

The groups that cited relaxation tended to skew slightly older, and the number dropped to around 40 percent for Millennial customers, a sign that more tried and true drinks might not be as appealing to them.

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Li’s study also looked at occasions and what sort of selections guests made. When asked what they might drink when trying to cheer up, cocktails and spirits were considered most important, while sangria, coffee and Champagne were named the least often. When it came to what to have with food, there was no surprise: beer and wine were most important, although there were distinctions. For example, if consumers wanted something “to wash down food,” they skewed toward beer, while if they were looking “to enhance food taste,” they skewed toward wine; the latter despite years of communication from craft brewers about the suitability of beer with food over wine.

Li and Datassential also looked at a vast collection of LTOs marketed by chain operators, such drinks as like the Bulleit Nog-Chata from Brio Tuscan Grille, the Blackberry Smash at Yard House, and the Campfire Sangria from Famous Dave’s. Gathering 11 million consumer ratings, Li noted that while some drinks may be quite popular, they may also be so ubiquitous or similar to others that they make less of a discernible impact on customer connectivity with an operator.

However, some drinks, like the Red Lobster Island Lobster Punch, showed high marks for uniqueness and purchase intent. Other drinks with high combinations of those scores included Bahama Breeze’s Lava Lava Rita, California Pizza Kitchen’s Beehive Sangria, and Hard Rock Cafe’s Peachy Keen Punch and Blackberry Bramble. Lemonades with a twist scored well: Smokey Bones’ Smooth Bourbon Blackberry Lemonade and Houlihan’s Blueberry Rosemary Lemonade included. Li noted that many of these drinks skewed sweet, and that operators should recognize that their customers have given them license to experiment, particularly with sweetness.

How far an operation should go in introducing new drinks to a menu depends on how experimental its customer base, although increasingly, consumers are showing that they want restaurants not only to deliver the tried and true but also to bring in new flavors, styles and sensations.

Li described the stages of the menu adoption cycle as those of inception, adoption, proliferation and ubiquity, giving operators a different way to think about their various cocktail portfolios. Ubiquitous drinks would include those that are expected to be available at most operations: Margaritas, Martinis, Bloody Marys, etc. Those in the proliferation category might best be described as those that have recently become popular or returned to popularity and can be found in one version or another in many operations: Old Fashioneds, Moscow Mules and Palomas being good examples.

Then there are those drinks that are emerging and driving experimentation: the Aperol Spritz, smoked cocktails, wine cocktails, and Negronis. While these might be thought of as routine in the world of craft cocktails, in the broader mainstream restaurant space they are still attention getters, in many cases new to the chain restaurant world’s regular customer base.

Finally, the inception group, which includes drinks like Milk Punch and the Boulevardier, techniques like fat washing, and taboo ingredients such as tobacco, cannabis compounds, and extreme flavors. These are cocktails that are cutting-edge, often not just from craft cocktail bars but contemporary ethnic restaurants that incorporate unique ingredients into drinks, or come up with entirely new ways to make and present cocktails.