Juice, Unloosed

  • With their high quench potential, juices are worth a fresh look.

    ©istockphoto.com / Viktorija Kuprijanova

    In his landmark 2004 treatise The Paradox of Choice, Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz made the case that the vast number of choices available to modern consumers does not offer a heady sense of freedom. Rather, it produces a kind of anxiety, even paralysis, brought on by endless mulling, weighing, rethinking, comparing, contrasting, and second-guessing.

    I’m reminded of Schwartz’s premise each time I survey the beverage options at local supermarkets and convenience stores. I might feel like getting an iced tea, but nowadays, the decision to select an iced tea is really just a gateway to a series of other, equally significant choices I need to make before I can pop the top and quench my thirst: Brewed or instant? Black, green, oolong, or white? Sugar-sweetened, unsweetened, or artificially sweetened? Arizona, Lipton, Snapple, Nantucket Nectars, or Honest Tea? Lemon, peach, raspberry, pomegranate, or plain?

    It’s easy to see why, faced with so many choices, many of us will simply sidestep the issue altogether and opt for bottled water. At least we would, if that decision didn’t force a host of others: Spring, purified, mineral, or sparkling? Plain or electrolyte-enhanced? Dasani, Arrowhead, Aquafina, Perrier, or Evian? You get the picture.

    The irony of all this beverage choice is that, in the end, consumers really only want a small handful of outcomes from the stuff that wets their whistles and whets their appetites. First and most important, they want whatever is in their cup to accomplish the beverage’s most basic function: quenching thirst. Increasingly, they also want this substance to be, if not exactly nutritionally beneficial, then at least conservative in its calorie count.

    Juices satisfy both criteria. They retain a halo of healthfulness simply by virtue of being extracted from fruits and vegetables. And even when diluted, mixed with other flavor agents, or otherwise combined with water, tea, lemonade, herbal infusions, or certain sodas, juices retain the best of their nutritional profiles.

    Quick-serve consumers also want their beverages to be refreshing and a little fun. These factors are two that chains can exercise the greatest degree of control over.

    Let’s talk about refreshment first. The dilution and mix-and-match trends really serve two distinct purposes. By thinning out whole fruit or vegetable juices, chains supply their consumers with a more quaffable concoction suitable for chugging at will. In so doing, they also provide refreshment without the hefty calorie intake. Anyone who’s ever downed a big glass of orange or apple juice on a hot day will attest that acidity and sweetness often make pure juices tough on the stomach and less satisfying to the parched palate. But orange juice mixed with, say, a light lemonade, unsweetened tea, or coconut water can boost the refreshment quota considerably. Even the simple act of carbonating juice or a juice-based beverage can heighten its refreshment potential, and that’s something chains can easily do themselves in stores.

    Under the broad heading of “fun”—a key choice driver among the much-targeted Millennials—we have a broad array of possibilities. The wine industry may be seen as a kind of precedent here. This multibillion-dollar business has been built around varietals, vintages, and blends of just one principal juice: grape. And that trend toward specialization, regionalization, and niche creations may help chains formulate a plan of attack for expanding their juice-based beverage offerings.

    Think about all of the apple varieties available at your local supermarket during the fall. While many 3-year-olds are quite content with their tried-and-true, classic-gold apple juice, a 23–33-year-old might be tempted by a Honeycrisp apple-cinnamon juice spritzer, a Jonagold and white-cranberry juice cooler, or a Macoun apple-lemonade.

    Some of the fun factor could also come from creative pairings between juice-based drinks and food. A chain with multiple juice selections might consider suggesting pairings for customers, for instance. While a real bloody mary may not be a viable or legal option to accompany your egg-and-sausage biscuit, a well-crafted virgin version could pair nicely with traditional breakfast fare. And while many Mexican concepts have already tapped into the allure of agua frescas—popular Latin American fruit- and water-based refreshers—there’s no reason why other types of chains shouldn’t offer something similar for consumers who want something more flavorful than water, but less intense than a full-on blast of pure juice. Mixologists around the country are already doing interesting things with cucumber water, but this could be just the tip of the iceberg: Waters with a light infusion of tomato or celery, say, might find an audience among those who appreciate more savory-leaning concoctions.

    The balance chains must strike as they pursue new directions in juice-based drinks is a bit dicey. New creations need to be functional, but not utilitarian; flavorful, but not overwhelming to the palate; healthful, but not at the expense of taste; and novel, without being outlandish. But I believe the right formulations will prompt guests to raise a glass … again and again.