Beverages: Drinks With a Plus

Booster shots

Forty years ago, when Dr. J. Robert Cade (who died at the age of 80 late last year) invented Gatorade, he couldn’t have imagined what he’d started. The category of “plus” beverages has surged far beyond sports and energy drinks—it’s huge and growing bigger every year. You can’t afford not to offer some type of plus-drink on the menu. And with the big beverage companies expanding their portfolios, they’re easier than ever to purchase. The only problem is, which ones to choose?

Energy drinks, containing lots of caffeine as well as energy boosters like taurine and guarinine, are a strongly selling category, embraced by younger consumers. Among the top-selling brands are Red Bull, Monster, Rockstar, Full Throttle and Sobe No Fear.

These days just about every kind of quaffable is being enhanced with a pharmacopoeia of additives aimed at whatever ails modern consumers. The company Function Drinks, for example, has invented a whole line of therapeutic beverages: Brainiac (which allegedly improves mental function), House Call (builds immunity), Light Weight (burns calories), Urban Detox (fights pollutants) and Youth Trip (protects skin).

Bottled water comes in varieties far beyond plain; fruit-flavored waters are especially popular. Some brands also add vitamins and other functional ingredients to the H20. Borba, marketed by Anheuser-Busch, is a “Skin Balance Water.” Even beer has been enhanced—Stampede Light Beer is fortified with vitamins. And for those who over-imbibe, there’s a whole new category of hangover cures, with names like Resurrect Daily Detox and Rehab Recovery Supplement.

The crunchy-granola brands that led the trend are now being snapped up by CSD giants who are diversifying as traditional soft drink sales fizzle. Recently, Coca-Cola acquired Glaceau brands Vitaminwater and Smartwater and debuted vitamin-fortified Diet Coke Plus. Coke’s diverse portfolio contains multiple brands in every plus category. Pepsi-Cola, too, stocks an impressive list of brands, including Aquafina and Sobe. It also debuted Diet Pepsi Max, spiked with ginseng. And venerable Gatorade? It’s now owned by Pepsi.

Power cocktails

Although non-alcoholic, energy drinks are a fixture in cocktail culture, both as a mixer and quaffed by themselves. Packing high-octane mixtures of caffeine, taurine, ginseng, mate and more, they’ve gained currency with younger drinkers as a way to combat the drowsiness of over-imbibing and late nights. Their sweet flavors and vibrant colors are yet more tools for creative mixologists.

The Green Apple Buzz cocktail, for example, proved so popular during a quarterly promotion, that Dallas-based Bennigan’s Grill & Tavern moved the $5 energy drink concoction up to its regular menu this year.  Made by pouring Monin Granny Smith Apple syrup in a glass and carefully topping that with Red Bull creates a colorful layered drink, which attracts attention in the dining room, says Susan Karlen, director of marketing for the casual chain. “It’s a good-looking drink,” observes Karlen. “The trend with energy drinks is amazing,” the marketing VP enthuses.

“Red Bull is the 800-pound gorilla,” says Holly Roberts, mixologist for Aspen Restaurant & Lounge in New York. Any bar with a nightlife crowd, she asserts, has to carry the leading energy drink brand because customers ask for it by name. “It’s like Band-Aids or Kleenex.”

The big seller at Aspen, however, is another kind of plus-drink: the Acai Margarita ($12). Acai is a berry native to Brazil packed full of antioxidants, anthocyanins, fiber and essential amino acids. This new superfood is just being discovered, but Aspen has had the super marg on its menu since the place opened over two years ago.

“When we first introduced the drink, people didn’t know what acai was,” recalls Roberts. “I put the margarita on the menu because I had spent a lot of time in Brazil, liked the fruit, and created the cocktail. Then, when acai started showing up in places like Jamba Juice, people understood what it was and we didn’t have to explain the cocktail any more.” The Acai Margarita has consistently been a top seller over the years.

The restaurant also offers other plus-cocktails, including the NoChado ($13), made with Zen Green Tea liqueur and ginger-infused vodka, and a drink made with an energy vodka.

But can a cocktail—even one based on superfruit acai—be good for you? “When you start mixing in the tequila, I’m not so sure people are drinking it for the health benefit,” Roberts considers. “But it’s a great-tasting drink, and everybody has their rationalizations.” 

Fresh take

“We’ve been putting healthy additives into our smoothies for a long time,” says Bruce Reinstein, COO of Needham, Massachusetts-based Fresh City, “so our customers are familiar with that.” Indeed, the 23-unit fast-casual chain offers a smoothie-plus line that includes the Coldfighter (a blend of tropical juices, strawberries, blueberries, bananas and orange sherbet spiked with echinacea, vitamin C, goldenseal and beta glucan) and the Energizer (limeade, strawberries, bananas, raspberry sherbet and apple juice, plus ginko biloba, bee pollen, ginseng, gotu kola, kola nut and green tea). Fresh City customers got used to the idea and today, half of its smoothies are pumped up with extras.

“The VitaminWater and SmartWater situation is similar,” notes Reinstein. “To me it’s all a state of mind,” he philosophizes. “I’m not sure that by drinking these things every day you’re going to be running the marathon.” Whatever the reason, Fresh City restaurants sell lots of Glaceau’s enhanced waters, bottles of which are displayed in coolers or on the counter for grab-and-go sales. Customers are trading up from bottled soft drinks (which Fresh City has discontinued) to the waters, which sell for a premium $2.19.  VitaminWater and SmartWater are priced higher than regular bottled water. “It’s a nice package, good looking,” says Reinstein. “People feel they’re getting value.” Fresh City also menus a Glaceau energy water called VitaminEnergy in Dragonfruit flavor for $3.29.

The COO also likes the fact that purchasing the waters is easy because he gets them from his Coke distributor. “It’s one-stop shopping, and it increases the volume [that we buy].” Volume purchases can mean discounts. “We’re pleased with the results,” says Reinstein. “The Glaceau waters are flying off shelves pretty fast.”

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