Fruit and Drink

Despite known health benefits, fruit juice has been losing ground to fruit drinks. In 2003, drinks grew by 3.1% and juices fell by 1.8%. But a proliferation of high-end juice products may be just the ticket to reverse the trend.

It’s a confusing world out there, with more people seeking nourishment in the form of healthful beverages. Yet, they’re shunning sources with the best nutrition profiles—such as 100% juice—because their caloric content can be higher than an artificially sweetened juice drink or flavored water with a modicum of juice content.

According to Gary Hemphill, vice president of Beverage Marketing Corp., the New York-based research firm, per capita consumption of fruit beverages has remained fairly stable since the mid-1990s. “In 2003, the typical American drank an estimated 14.9 gallons of fruit beverages, down from 15.0 gallons in 2002,” he points out. “But the growth of fruit drink (vs. fruit juice) consumption is largely responsible for any change in the category as a whole. In 2003, drinks grew by 3.1% and juices fell by 1.8%.”

Hemphill attributes the difference to both the increase in new fruit drink introductions as well as their generally lower price. Overall, in 2003 retail sales of fruit juice fell more than $200 million from a high of $12.2 billion the previous year; meanwhile, fruit drinks achieved their own record high of $7.8 billion.

That’s still a lot of juice—and juice drinks—and the numbers only tell part of the story. Sales of ready-to-drink (RTD) juice beverages, as well as sales of high-end premium juices and fresh made-to-order concepts, are growing in non-commercial locations across the country, operators report.

High-end growth: Sodexo USA, for example, spends close to $200 million annually on cold beverages including carbonated soft drinks, waters and juice. Kenny Lipsman, director of supply management for the Gaithersburg, Md.–based contractor, notes that although the juice category is relatively flat, his company still buys a lot of juice.

“We see more opportunity for growth in the high end, not-from-concentrate products,” he says. In fact, some high-end orange juice and juice blends as well as smoothies are delivered by bottlers direct to individual Sodexo accounts.

Lipsman, who contracts for cold beverages for all sectors of the contractor’s business, finds that orange, apple and cranberry are the mainstays of juice sales. “In schools, we use the frozen portion cups and in colleges we’ve used frozen dispensed product,” he reports. “But that’s declining since, with today’s hurried lifestyle, there’s more of a focus on grab-and-go.”

And for that grab-and-go market, students and other customers are looking for individual packaging, Lipsman points out. “Bottlers own a lot of our refrigerated assets; therefore a lot of (product) is sold out of (branded) or non-branded coolers. That’s all ambient, shelf-stable, mid-tier juice product. The other end (of business) is high-end, refrigerated, not from concentrate.”

Profiling: The health profile of juice and juice drinks is under some scrutiny with respect to sales in schools—but many districts are taking a proactive stance to eliminating both carbonated and non-carbonated beverages that don’t fit the desired nutritional profile.

For example, since New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools put its Healthy Kids First guidelines in place, 100% juice, milk and water are the only beverages the district will purchase.

To meet the challenge of offering attractive alternatives to the students, Luis Rodriguez, Aramark’s marketing specialist for the district, finds 100% juice “slush” product—fills the bill. Following a pilot program begun last year, 11 high schools and four middle schools out of New Haven’s 52 facilities now offer the program.

Presently, only pre-packed four-ounce orange and apple juice containers are part of a reimbursable lunch, but he’s now aiming to have the slush considered as a component, perhaps as a fruit alternate. Typically, there are four flavors available each day in the larger schools with fruit punch and blue raspberry tied for first place in the “favorite flavor” ranking.

OJ is A-OK: Smoothies and juices have long been campus favorites, especially in foodcourt stations where fresh-blended concoctions—often at the customer’s specification—are the order of the day. For example: Orange juice is “probably” the top seller at Zia Juice, a branded concept at the University of Hartford (Conn.).

“There’s a pretty neat machine that cuts the oranges in half, extracts the juice, discards the orange ‘shells,’ then pours the juice into a plastic cup for service,” says Sherwood Lincoln, resident district manager for Aramark. “But students can choose whatever juice combination they want including strawberry, banana, carrot, etc.”

Today there are Zia stores in four other colleges including the University of South Carolina, University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of New Mexico, with five more in development. According to company officials, smoothies average 90% of Zia sales compared to 10% for juice.

At Hartford, Lincoln reports that business is most brisk from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and students enjoy having their juice made to order by the employees who just happen to be fellow students.

Grass takes root: In addition, one-ounce shots of wheat grass have been the surprise “juice” seller at all Zia locations. “Some of us underestimated how important that antioxidant health feature is to the 18-to 25-year-old market,” says Steve Kibler, vice president of business development. “It now accounts for about 5% of (juice) sales—it’s a very, very niche product with a pretty narrow demographic.”

Hartford students purchase an average of 28 shots of wheat grass per day, the equivalent of a one-foot-by-two-foot hydroponically grown flat. The grass is snipped with scissors, then liquefied in an extractor.

“It’s merchandised in front of the counter, behind a sneeze guard. It has a little grassy flavor, but it definitely has a following,” Lincoln asserts.