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Call on Cross-Utilization for Memorable, Profitable Beverages

Call on cross-utilization of menu items to benefit your restaurant beverage program

With a little splash of creativity, kitchen ingredients can create buzz-worthy drinks.

Quality food calls for drinks to match. Since operators are always looking for ideas to get customers to spend a little more, beverages may hold the answer. Cross-utilizing kitchen ingredients to make beverages sexy is one way to add menu items diners are willing to pay for. When the front of the house and the back of the house work closer and share ingredients, it satisfies the “wow” factor customers crave and enhances your bottom line.

The numbers prove the point. Nearly half of all customers (49%) say they are more likely to buy beverages that are handcrafted or house-made. This finding, from the Technomic Inc. 2016 Canadian Beverage Consumer Trend Report, shows diners are eager to try something new and unique.

Consumers, especially women, consider tastes and experiences more than they do cost, says Gordon Haines, Director of Business Development at Ocean Spray International. “If something special shows up at the table, then that increases the positive experience and builds sales and loyalty,” he says.

Understand cross-utilization’s role in showcasing drinks

Every location has a liquid identity. No matter if your establishment is known for serving fresh lemon wedges with iced tea or for having the coldest beer in town (both of which are good things), you have room to upgrade. Making drinks more memorable in certain areas can have a big impact.

Craft beverages and mocktails. Instead of offering free water refills, suggesting house-made beverages is a way to encourage individual drink purchases. Mocktails and alcohol-free offerings have fallen 36% over the past three years at Canadian midscale chain restaurants, Technomic Inc. research shows. Casual chains have seen 65% growth over the same period. This is partly because consumers are more likely be cost conscious in these segments. But as consumers look toward “better for you” options, they are willing to spend more, Haines says. This gives independent operators an opportunity to create a specialty beverage by cross-utilizing ingredients to set them apart, even at midscale chains.

Adding fruit wedges to drinks can create a stunning presentation. If fresh fruit is too expensive or leads to food waste, there are simple alternatives. A good option is handcrafted sodas using soda water with flavoured syrup, says Cameron Bryce, Applications Manager at Kerry Foodservice. A better option is a handcrafted soda with muddled fruit and herbs. “Flavour and simplicity are a magic combination,” he says. “Syrups and fruit purees mixed with classic muddling techniques and basic ingredients can put any operation on the map.”

Cocktails. Alcohol service is a staple of many restaurants, but mixology is an area where cross-utilization can add differentiation. The use of fresh items, such as shaved ginger, sliced melons, lemongrass or herb infusions are ways to take food items from the menu and incorporate them in drinks, according to Gordon Food Service Marketing Services Manager Scott McDeivitte. Pairings, including beer and wine, with menu items is another way to encourage a blend of food and drink.

“Where we see a lot of global infusion in food, we’re also seeing it in beverages,” Mcdeivitte says. “Thai-herb juice in gin is something we would not have seen until recently—if it’s popular on your menu, then it has potential on your drink menu.”

Cocktails can be epic meals in a glass, featuring shrimp skewers, bacon or even pizza slices and burgers. You may not sell a lot of epic cocktails, but when they’re ordered people take photos that are shared on social media and create buzz. “It may be expensive to make, but you can charge accordingly and millennials will pay for it,” notes Maggie Lippert, a Regional Sales Manager at Kerry Foods. “You also can make it an LTO (limited-time offer) to promote order-it-now urgency.”

Coffee. Even though every customer knows what a cappuccino or latte is, the coffee revolution isn’t over. Tim Horton’s and Starbucks have popularized many versions of their drinks, and that opens the door for restaurants to raise the bar on coffee, already one of the most profitable menu items. Instead of just offering coffee, enhance the appeal with a caramel swirl or chocolate bits.

Gourmet syrups are an easy way to add exotic appeal to coffee or tea, Bryce says, calling on popular global flavours such as Madagascar Vanilla, Hawaiian Salted Caramel or Turkish Hazlenut. Seasonal flavours also spark interest and work as an LTO. Pumpkin spice or apple foam can be cold-weather offerings of local or seasonal interest.

Another rising star in the coffee category is cold brew, which can be cross-utilized as part of an operation’s brand as a premium or natural product. This is especially true if it’s made with fair trade organic beans, Mcdeivitte says. Technomic data shows 59% of consumers ordered cold/iced or blended coffee from scratch in 2016, and cold coffee drinks are among the fastest growing beverages among top 200 bakery and coffee cafes. With this kind of popularity and the fact that iced coffee drinks sell for an average of $4.19 at full-service Canadian chains (compared to $3.01 for iced tea), there may be growth and profit opportunities worth watching.

Make beverages part of your culinary playbook

Mcdeivitte points out how the same local or seasonal foods that drive a menu can be incorporated into beverage service. A sprig of rosemary, a cucumber slice or a locally grown strawberry can dress up a juice drink or cocktail. “Seasonal foods already top of mind for the consumer are a natural for the drink menu,” he says. “There’s no need to go overboard—just add one item and consumers will view the entire item as fresh.”

Tableside presentation is another way to add freshness and flair. Access to kitchen ingredients makes it possible to bring fruits right to the table and blend sangria drinks. Muddling beverages like mojitos or garnishing drinks with whipped or shaken egg whites in front of guests adds a bit of theatrics that builds interest and sells more beverages to other diners. And the theatrics don’t have to consume a lot of labour, Mcdeivitte says. Simply bringing a portable beer tap and filling glasses at the table can enhance sales.

No matter what you serve or how you prepare it, price it right. Kelly Anderson, a Gordon Food Service Non-Food Category Lead based in Milton, Ontario. “People don’t consume five drinks at a sitting, especially alcohol drinks, so the price must be considered.” Measuring each portion and knowing the cost of each ingredient is key to making a consistent drink and avoiding costs that bring down profit.

Flavour the food menu with beverages

The same way menu items can be cross-utilized on the beverage menu, beverages can enhance the culinary side of the menu. Coffee rubs, juice marinades and beer braises are ways your beverages can bring an element of creativity to the menu. And don’t overlook how beverages and syrups can be used in dressings, sauces and dessert toppings.

Creating a sauce for seafood or a marinade for poultry can take a common menu item and make it new. Mcdeivitte notes that pomegranate or papaya juice marinade is a great way to tenderize less-expensive cuts of cuts of beef, adding flavour and economy to the menu.

“The possibilities are endless for combining beverages and food,” Lippert says. “When you marry flavours that haven’t been done before you stay relevant to your customers.”