Too often caterers treat soft drinks as an afterthought instead of making them a feature of their menus. And that's missing a big trick. Ian Boughton reports.
The soft drinks market did not have a wonderful time in 2007 and 2008 and, as soft drinks sales are allied to the weather, one does not like to imagine what will be in the statistics for the "barbecue summer" of 2009 when they appear.
At the same time, there is customer resistance to soft drinks in parts of the catering trade - Mintel recently suggested that 29 million adults resent paying what they perceive to be unrealistically high prices for soft drinks in a pub.
However, the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) has been optimistic in its most recent market report. Where there has been progress in sales, says the BSDA, it is the innovation shown by its members which has kept the sector healthy.
Innovation in soft drinks is often taken to mean ever-more exotic blends featuring the latest superfruit, but that is not where real progress lies. One soft drinks maker has said that "the holy grail for all of us is the credible non-alcoholic adult soft drink".
"I think the credible adult soft drink is a realistic proposition and is already here," says Richard Laming, a director at the BSDA. "There are a lot of drinks that sit quite happily alongside or instead of alcoholic drinks in the pub or with food, and the range is growing and getting better all the time."
And that response carried a clue which many soft drinks makers think is the way forward - the soft drink should be a menu item.
"There really never has been a better time to take advantage of the soft drinks opportunity," says Claire Martinsen, founder of Breckland Orchard artisan drinks in Norfolk. "It's a very dynamic market, but there is currently a disconnect between consumers and the ranges stocked by out-of-home outlets. Consumers are bored with run-of-the-mill soft drinks."
The answer, she says, is by a straightforward tactic - put the soft drinks on the menu instead of under the counter. "Add a descriptor where possible," she says.
"Say 'zesty real lemonade', or 'zingy ginger beer with chilli made with Norfolk spring water'." The latter is one of her specialities - or, in her own menu description, "not a blow-your-head-off-chilli, more of a gentle tickle-the-back-of-your-throat chilli".
Most of the soft drinks trade appears to agree with Mintel's opinion that "targeting mealtime occasions is key". Mintel's research shows that consumers are particularly keen on soft drinks with their meals, whether that is in or out of home. Therefore, premium soft drinks can be promoted strongly as complementing food.
"The product is ripe for this," says Marvin Henshaw, Pago's UK manager. "The catering trade has been guilty of treating fruit juice as a commodity product - buy in bulk, serve it behind the scenes, and make no sell-in about quality. But in work we've done with good food operators, fruit juice has become an integral part of a premium upsell opportunity."
Recommend the soft drink to match the food, says Gabriel David, managing director of Luscombe, recently quoted as denying the old idea that soft drinks are too sweet for use with food. He recommends that smoked salmon works with hot ginger beer, and that an orange and lemon drink goes with fish fingers. Pork chops and celeriac can be offered with apple juice. With ginger sponge, the customer should be offered apple and pear, or with apple pie and ice-cream, the recommendation is wild elderflower.
One of the company's biggest sellers is Sicilian lemonade which pairs with Mediterranean flavours such as roasted tomatoes, olives, tapenade, pasta with roast tomatoes, grilled courgettes with mint, salad niçoise and grilled chicken with garlic and herbs.
"Our new Cranberry Crush is incredibly versatile," David says. "It works well with chicken, turkey, game and lamb, and with light green salads and cheese. It can also be paired with light sponges, cheesecake and shortbread biscuits. The dry finish is the key to this versatility."
Now, says Bottlegreen's sales director Andrew Cooney, we should move the theory across the age ranges. "It is important to consider the customer who might normally buy a £20 bottle of wine but, because they are driving, looks for a non-alcoholic alternative. Premium soft drinks that cater for the adult palate have a huge role to play here - chances are this customer will be happy to spend a little more to enjoy a sophisticated soft drink.
"The same applies to kids, who are by nature aspirational. They may be happy with orange squash at home, but when they are out with mum and dad, they want something special. That's why we launched Bottlegreen Party, natural apple juice and a touch of elderflower. It appeals to teens who no longer want to be seen as kids."
These are menu items worthy of description, says Cooney - the caterer who simply says "a selection of soft drinks" risks customers falling back on the old favourites.
There is untapped potential in dilutables and cordials, say many manufacturers. They are traditionally in-home drinks, but have catering potential which stretches from breakfast service to evening dinner tables.
The cordial has suffered from the "orange squash" legacy, but suppliers such as Belvoir Fruit Farms have long specialised in exotic cordials - elderflower, blackberry, passion fruit and mango, winter berries, organic ginger, raspberry and pomegranate. All of these dilutables make an exotic offer for dinner, breakfast, or afternoon.
Don't forget tradition in cordials, says Phil Rundlett of the Italian Beverage Company. "Last year we launched a range of traditional drinks - lemonade, ginger beer, and dandelion and burdock. The reason they were an instant success was the market seemed to be favouring 'old-fashioned'.
"Our lemonade won a British Bottlers diploma, and our Simply Traditional range this summer will add cordial flavours such as pomegranate and raspberry, and rhubarb and custard. Add sparkling water and serve."
In very general terms, juices are expected to be the growth product over the next few years, with carbonated soft drinks expected to perform steadily. The trend in bottled water, says British Bottled Water Producers, is steady but with British waters now outselling imported brands.
The carbonated sector that will grow is the one using fruit juice with refreshing carbonation and no additives, preservatives, colouring, flavouring or sweeteners, says Sean Uprichard, chief executive of Suso Drinks. He says that innovation in acceptable drinks can take a product to success in unexpected places - "by developing a range with recyclable packaging, recipes that contain only fruit and bubbles so are uncompromising in terms of health benefits, and that delivers the functional benefit of one of the recommended five-a-day intake of fruit and vegetables, the health benefits of a fruit juice, the refreshment of a fizzy drink and the lifestyle aspirational qualities of a brand such as Red Bull, Suso has distribution in some 1,500 secondary schools."
Companies such as Breckland Orchard (above) and Bottlegreen (below) supply a range of premium soft drinks that should appeal to all ages
Belvoir 01476 870286
Bottlegreen 01453 874000
Breckland Orchard 07770 802988
Italian Beverage Company 020 8736 0455
Luscombe 01364 643036
Pago 07798 532447
Suso 020 7720 0678