Specialty drinks make a splash at fast-food chains

Smoothies, coffees, teas, dessert drinks available; step up to the 'Cinnabar'

In an effort to meet broadening consumer tastes, fast-food chains are rolling out a host of specialty drinks that go far beyond basic soft drinks.

Fruit smoothies, flavored teas, hot and cold coffees and decadent dessert drinks are finding their way onto the menus of restaurants traditionally known for hamburgers, sandwiches and sweet snacks.

Atlanta-based Arby's introduced fresh-brewed flavored teas this year. Cinnabon, owned by Atlanta-based Focus Brands, is testing new store designs that use a "Cinnabar" section to highlight their beverages.

Fast-food chains have good reason to look into specialty beverages, said Peter Romeo, author of the Restaurant Reality Check blog. These outlets have historically counted on two items, soft drinks and french fries, to boost profits, he said.

But in recent years, consumers, particularly those in the younger generation, have shown interest in non-carbonated beverages, such as waters and teas, Romeo said.

Specialty beverages appeal to the younger generation and provide new snack options to attract customers between meals, he said. "You put those two things together, and you have a pretty potent driver for why chains are looking at all types of beverages," Romeo said.

The trend is not lost on Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. While standard brands remain the bulk of its business at food-service outlets, Coca-Cola executives said more restaurants are looking at specialty beverages as a way to increase sales and set themselves apart.

Coca-Cola works with restaurants to combine base products, such as Coke, Honest Tea and Minute Maid lemonade, with other ingredients, such as flavor syrups, ice cream and fruit, to create specialty beverages. It also works with the Culinary Institute of America on drink recipes and food and beverage pairings.

The focus on specialty beverages started with full-service restaurants, such as T.G.I. Friday's, but has moved into quick-service chains, said Laura Rueckel, a senior marketing manager with Coca-Cola's food-service division.

Krystal added last year a line of Freeze slushes that use Coca-Cola products as their base ingredient. Del Taco recently added a strawberry lemonade that uses Minute Maid lemonade and strawberry puree. Sonic has built a reputation for a long list of specialty beverages from floats to slushes, many of which use Coca-Cola products.

"The possibilities are truly endless," Rueckel said. "We're really beyond the years when a specialty beverage was a vanilla Coke."

In a move to provide its guests more choices, Arby's added in March fresh brewed beverages, called "FruiTeas," and already is testing new flavors, said Brian Kolodziej, Arby's vice president of product development. The chain also updated its shakes to include a visible chocolate swirl.

The new beverages have provided alternative drinks to go with meals and a treat to pull people into an Arby's even when it's not mealtime, Kolodziej said. Its current tea flavors include mandarin peach, diet blackberry, passion fruit and diet peach.

"We believe there's some real craveable flavors behind these teas," Kolodziej said.

The specialty beverage category will continue to grow, he said. Teas alone have huge possibilities with rising interest in new varieties such as white and green teas, Kolodziej said.

"We see it as a real competitive advantage for Arby's to hold onto this and gain some ownership over this segment," he said.

Cinnabon, known best for its rolls, also is exploring ways to raise awareness and sales of its beverages, said Cinnabon President Geoff Hill. It offers coffee, lemonade and chilled and blended frozen beverages flavored with fruit, coffee and chocolate.

Beverages make up about 20 percent of sales at a typical outlet, but Hill said Cinnabon hopes to push that to 25 percent to 30 percent of sales with two key changes already in the works.

It's testing a new "Cinnabar" section in a Houston store that draws more attention to the drinks. Cinnabon also is talking with potential beverage partners to help expand its offerings, Hill said.

The goal is to add more beverage sales to orders and use beverages to increase the frequency of visits by guests, he said.

"People drink coffee every day," Hill said. "They have other beverages every day. ... They're not going to have a cinnamon roll every day."