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    Putting Some Pop in Soda

  • Operators play with technology, craft procedures to make stand-out soda.

    Though soda sales have fallen flat, operators are diversifying their carbonated beverages as another point of differentiation.

    Starbucks wanted the Fizzio varieties to be rooted in classic flavors but with complex, layered flavors, Fine says. The final products were Spiced Root Beer, Lemon Ale, and Golden Ginger Ale, all available with light, standard, or extra bubbles.

    But offering homemade soda is not always easy. Tender Greens tested its own carbonated drinks a few years ago. The Culver City, California, restaurant chain, known for serving healthy, chef-inspired, local dishes, wanted to take that better-for-you message to its sodas, says cofounder Erik Oberholtzer. It tested making house sodas at its Hollywood location. The idea was to turn local fruit into syrup, add agave sweetening, and use soda water to “make it to order like Italian soda,” he says. “It was cleaner, more refined than anything in a commercial fountain.”

    Making cola or root beer, however, takes exceptional focus and commitment. “We experimented with root beer, but couldn’t get the flavor we wanted,” Oberholtzer says. Tender Greens eventually migrated to Maine Root craft soda products, which are organic. Individual restaurant operators still have the ability to make seasonal sodas if they want from recipes already created by the company.

    Portland, Oregon’s Hotlips Pizza goes a step beyond and not only makes soda, but also bottles it. The drinks feature fruit and berries from the Pacific Northwest, where “we have a temperate climate that allows the flavors to develop,” says co-owner David Yudkin. Hotlips was looking for ways to funnel more dollars to local growers when the idea of craft sodas arose. “This is the land of beer microbrewing and home brewing, and all these guys know how to carbonate,” he says. “They said it’s no problem to make soda.”

    Rather than develop strong flavors like root beer, which can flavor brewing lines for days, Hotlips opted for raspberry, black raspberry, cherry, cranberry, lemon, pear, and marionberry sodas. There’s also ginger ale made with organic ginger from Hawaii. In recent years, Hotlips has even taken to mixing its various sodas with champagne to make mimosas, while it also combines lemon soda with beer for a shandy.

    A number of limited-service restaurants have turned to natural specialty sodas as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Craft brands like Jones, Izze, Maine Root, GuS, and Boylan dot the landscape.

    Maine Root is featured at New York City–based Luke’s Lobster, which has 14 locations. “There’s quite a bit of cost differential between big and small craft soda, but Maine Root is more in line with our values,” says vice president Ben Conniff. “It’s organic and fair trade, with real ingredients, not chemicals.”

    Luke’s Lobster sells a half-dozen varieties of the soda—root beer is the most popular—and sales have not shown any decline, Conniff says. “It’s a nostalgic thing. You think about going to the beach and relaxing. It recaptures that.” The chain also sells Green Bee soda, which is made with honey and botanicals.

    Spindrift is focusing on more upscale limited-service brands, since those companies are more open to craft sodas.

    “We’re really aligning with fast-casual restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops—those making products from scratch,” Creelman says. “Carbonation tends to increase the flavor, but in our case, too much can create almost a metallic aftertaste. We are about 10–15 percent below mainline sodas because we want the juice to soar.”

    Some chefs even use carbonated beverages in their food. Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs in Denver employs cola in making its caramelized onion. Owner Jim Pittenger, whose concept offers a wide variety of hot dogs, says cola cuts the cooking time for the onions from an hour to about 15–20 minutes, depending on how hot the pan is. “The liquid breaks down the onions in a hurry, so throw some cola into a pan full of onions and turn the heat on high,” he says.