There was a time when most beverage selections consisted primarily of carbonated sodas and a few off-flavor drinks,” says Chris Basmagy, assistant director of nutrition services at Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University. Not so today. “Customers are really changing the way they drink.” Today, people want to try something new, they want choices and they want them made fresh.
Although Basmagy’s retail cafés were offering commercially bottled choices like Fuze teas and Odwalla smoothies, he realized his department needed to kick it up a notch.
So he started offering fresh-made global beverage flavors as part of a monthly special event series centered around “super foods.”
“Customers today, especially in the healthcare setting, want to eat and drink things that are healthy,” Basmagy explains. “Our goal with this series was to get customers to try some new flavors and to educate them on the health benefits of eating certain foods.”
During a recent month, the department created a made-to-order Cranberry Bog, made with cranberry juice, açaí berries and agave nectar. Another recent event was themed around global teas; tea, after all, is the most popular beverage around the world. For the occasion, Basmagy’s team created flavors like Kuwaiti-Cinnamon Orange Tea, Thai Iced Tea, and Pomegranate and Iced Ginger Tea. “The customers loved both events, they learned a lot and we increased sales,” says Basmagy. “Though it was a one-time only event, we still get customers asking if we can run the bog and teas as an everyday option.”
The University of Dayton can relate; the dining services team began offering bubble tea, a Taiwanese tea-based beverage often mixed with fruit or milk and tapioca pearls, in its student-run café area last spring. “The bubble tea is by far the best-selling beverage,” says Mary Eilbeck, associate director of resident dining and central production, who concedes she first got the idea after hearing a director at the Rochester Institute of Technology rave about his success with the beverage. “We needed something new [and because of the similarities in ingredients], we decided bubble tea was a good [complement] to the smoothies and shakes we were already serving.”
The café offers two different kinds of bubble tea. One is a more traditional bubble tea, called bobas, and the other more closely resembles a frozen fruit beverage, though both can be customized to whatever the customer desires.
For example, bobas are offered in seven flavors: blueberry, cherry, kiwi, mango, orange, passion fruit and strawberry. Syrups in flavors such as apple and kiwi-lime and pomegranate are also offered; or customers can opt for sauces, like German chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate and caramel. Fresh fruit can also be added.
“We wanted to use the products that we had, yet be true to what the product was supposed to be,” says Eilbeck, who adds that some versions are more “Americanized,” like the iced coffee bubble teas or those made with very little tea. “With us, if it is perceived to be out of the norm or healthy, we can’t sell it in huge quantities; however, the bubble tea is our best-selling beverage, especially the frozen fruit option.”
Bubble teas sell for $4 for 12 ounces or $5 for 16 ounces, plus 50 cents for an add-in called Black Pearls, which are made in house. To make Black Pearls, Eilbeck brings tapioca pearls to a boil, then reduces the heat, allowing them to simmer for 20 minutes. The tapioca triples in size and becomes a very deep brown or black color. All beverages come in clear containers, revealing the pearls.
Getting the word out: “The students were very excited about the product and have a lot of fun ordering and watching it being made just for them,” says Eilbeck. “They want to try every flavor we offer.” Advertisements and free samples also help spread the word. “Set up a station in the café to make it stand out,” suggests Basmagy, who decorated a table with fresh cranberries, drink umbrellas and health information to promote the cranberry bog. “You couldn’t miss it.”
“But be prepared for the word to spread quickly,” warns Eilbeck. “Around here, all you need is one student to take a picture on their phone and send it to several friends, and it’s as if the whole campus knows within a matter of minutes.” Basmagy agrees: “When we do these events, we typically see faces that we don’t see every day, and our units of service typically skyrocket.”
Consider requirements: Eilbeck says the first thing an operator must consider before adding bubble tea to his/her menu is space. “You need to have enough space to do it correctly and to have a variety of flavors,” she says.
For example, bobas come in a shelf-stable tub, but they need to be refrigerated after they’re opened. “We only had room for the seven flavors that we are using, which takes up about two shelves.” On the plus side, you don’t need to purchase pricey equipment, so the investment is low. “The one product that took us forever to find was the ‘fat straw’ that was big enough for the pearls to go through,” says Eilbeck, who finally found the perfect product at an online retailer called buycheapr.com. The cost of the products is also low, which increases profit, adds Basmagy, “especially because people are willing to pay more for these global beverages.”
That said, made-to-order drinks are more labor intensive, a factor worth considering before adding global beverages to your menu.
Basmagy is currently running the logistics on how he can control costs and labor for the bog and teas they served at recent events. “It’s a matter of coming up with a way to dispense the drinks in bulk, which requires a recipe that can hold all day, and finding the space for it,” he says. “It’s fun to do a special event, but you have to keep the novelty going every day.”
College café flavors drinks with housemade spice blend.
We’re an international café, so we’re always trying to incorporate flavors from around the world into our offerings,” says Karen Kourkoulis, chef and manager at the Passport Café inside the Carole Weinstein International Center at the University of Richmond. Kourkoulis encourages other foodservice directors to incorporate unusual ingredients into their menus. “I’ve been really impressed by [customers] not being afraid; they’re ready for new flavors, so just try one ingredient that’s out of the norm that will get people talking.”
Kourkoulis rotates her international offerings seasonally. Last summer, the department did a Jamaican limeade, made with fresh lime juice, brown sugar and water. They’ve also done a white orchard tea over ice during the warmer months. But perhaps their best-selling global beverage is the Mexican-spiced chocolate drinks, which come in two varieties—hot chocolate and mocha.
Kourkoulis created a spice blend of cinnamon, cayenne pepper, nutmeg and salt for these two hot beverages, which are offered in the winter months.
“Spice has been a big food trend lately, as people have really broadened their palates and like a little bit of kick to their food,” says Kourkoulis.
Even better, these Mexican-spiced drinks are easy to put together and are made with ingredients operators likely already have on hand. The only servingware operators might need to purchase are large ceramic mugs or to-go cups.
“Whenever we roll out a new item, it always sells well as our customers are very receptive to trying different flavors,” says Kourkoulis, who recommends that if your customers are more timid, consider offering free samples to pique their interest. “We do free samples when it first comes out, in addition to advertising on a sandwich board outside and putting the information in a daily e-newsletter that goes out around campus. We also tweet about new offerings to get people excited.”
And make sure your staff is on board and knowledgeable. “We have a staff of about 30 student employees, so it’s a bit of an undertaking, but we have each employee practice making new drinks and tasting them,” says Kourkoulis. “It’s that hands-on education that really makes a difference whenever a new item comes out.”
Developing a great bubble tea recipe took a lot of research, trial and error, admits Mary Eilbeck, associate director of resident dining and central production at the University of Dayton.
“I had no idea what bubble tea was when I first heard about it, but I decided to try making it based on recipes we found online. Our first couple [of] recipes were so bad that we knew there was no way we could serve them. But after nearly a dozen tries, the assistant general manager, Sue Falter, came up with two winning recipes—a traditional bobas and a bubble tea. The secret was cooking the black tapioca pearls to the right consistency, which takes a full 20 minutes of simmering to get the starch cooked out. After the pearls are cooked through, simply add the other ingredients, like tea, milk and a light corn syrup, to a cocktail shaker and pour the mixture on top. The students really love it.”
One 16-ounce beverage
2 oz. cooked, chilled black tapioca pearls
2 oz. flavored bobas
1 cup crushed ice
1 cup very strong black tea, chilled
1⁄2 cup milk
1⁄2 cup flavored creamer or half-and-half (customer’s choice)
1 tsp. honey
1 tsp. light corn syrup (to customer’s taste)