As restaurant operators look to make sure that beverages continue to be a strong and growing element of their businesses, there are plenty of drink suppliers, product developers, and manufacturers looking at ways to help them boost their sales.
Hundreds of them are showing their wares during the four-day National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show that continues its run in Chicago. A two-day sister confab, the International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event, also kicked off Sunday.
Although carbonated beverage sales declined again last year, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., the overall liquid refreshment beverage market edged ahead for the second consecutive year, reaching nearly 30 billion gallons.
The gains were largely due to niche categories such as ready-to-drink tea and coffee and energy drinks.
About three-dozen companies are doing a brisk business at the show with tea, ranging from big guys, such as Coca Cola, Pepsico, and Nestle, to smaller players, including Numi Organic Teas from Oakland, California, and Third Street in Louisville, Colorado.
Meanwhile, total volume of adult beverages—beer, wine, and spirits—also grew slightly in 2012 to 7.7 billion gallons, while dollars increased 3.6 percent to reach nearly 200 billion, according to a report from market research firm Technomic Inc.
Spirits exceeded 200 million cases, a 3.2 percent gain in volume.
Many of the drivers of the adult beverage business last year, including new products, are likely to continue in 2013, Technomic officials say.
"There have been a record number of new introductions," says David Henkes, vice president and on premises practice leader at Technomic, a speaker at one of the show's sessions. "Not all are on premises, but it shows the interest in new flavors and the need for innovation."
He adds that adult beverages are ways fast-casual restaurants have been differentiating themselves, such as beer pairings at Smashburger and the premium, hand-made margaritas at Chipotle that use Patron Silver tequila and other top-notch ingredients.
At the same time that many companies are showing off their new drink options, others are displaying innovative equipment to make different drinks.
One interesting device on display at the show is the result of a joint development agreement forged a year ago between two well-known beverage industry companies.
Blendtec, a top manufacturer of high-end blending equipment, and Lancer, a leading maker of beverage dispensing systems, unveiled the prototype of their automated blended ice beverage station to make smoothies, frozen coffee drinks, and other items.
"This will do very well at many restaurants," says Tom Dickson, the gregarious founder of Blendtec, based in West Orem, Utah. The company's Stealth sound-dampening blender is among the NRA's Kitchen Innovation winners being showcased during the show.
The prototype beverage station holds up to eight different refrigerated bag-in-box ingredients and is expected to make upwards of 64 different drink combinations.
Dickson says one key of the new platform is that it uses a peristaltic pump and tubing that allows for better quality control of the flavors.
For Lancer, of San Antonio, Texas, the new station is a way to expand beyond dispensers for carbonated drinks, says Richard L. Laughlin, executive vice president, who managed the project for the company.
Combining Lancer's core competency of ice making and refrigeration and Blendtec's blending and pumping expertise created a "fantastic partnership," he says. The product was developed in about a six months.
The automated blended ice beverage station has touch screen controls and is meant to go behind the counter at restaurants. It will likely hit the market during the first quarter of 2014 and will be priced at less than $9,000 per machine.
One of the more unusual displays at this year's NRA show is the hydroponic garden that was developed with the assistance of Des Plaines, Illinois, firm AMB Eco.
The fully functioning garden is growing all-natural herbs and greens using artificial lighting from above and nutrient enriched water piped into the non-soil plant beds that are contained in several levels of racks designed specifically for restaurants.
Company officials say hydroponic growing provides year-round harvesting, which is especially important in northern climes where not much produce is growing in the winter.
For the time being, AMB Eco is not selling its equipment but is offering it as part of an overall agreement, in which the company provides the devices, prepares the produce beds and then harvests the produce or herbs on a weekly basis.
The words is analytics
One of the most important terms in the business world these days is analytics.
In short, it refers to the techniques and technology used to delve into past business performances to gain insight into business practices to help determine future direction.
newBrandAnalytics, a Washington, D.C., company, uses technology to mine social media information to provide informational to its clients. The data include online reviews, Facebook, Twitter, and more.
"Unlike providing an incentive to customers to get their opinion, we are able to provide real-time insight into what they are thinking," says Susan Ganeshan, chief marketing officer.
For more updates on this year's NRA Show, check back with QSRmagazine.com, or follow us at @QSRmagazine.
By Barney Wolf