Smoothies in quick-service restaurants are undergoing a major evolution to meet the changing expectations of the public. According to two leading organizations in the quick-service smoothie industry, Vitamix and Smoothie King, blends are becoming less sweet and more focused on specific health-related purposes through interesting plant-based ingredients, herbs, and spices.
“The public’s taste buds have evolved,” explains Rocky Gettys, vice president of product development for Smoothie King. “What tasted good before now tastes too sweet to many people.”
“In lieu of sweetness, people are becoming open to new and different combinations of flavors in their smoothies, for example, basil and strawberries or mango and chipotle,” explains Matt Dugan, corporate executive chef at Vitamix. “The American palette, especially among the younger audiences, is become more enterprising, curious, and open to new, unfamiliar flavors.”
Dugan and Gettys, who recently shared their observations on smoothie trends for summer 2021, closely track quick-service restaurant menus, trending online smoothie recipes, and social media posts illustrating the vanguard in home experimentation with smoothie recipes.
The U.S. smoothie market continues to grow at a steady clip. In 2020, Smoothie King opened a record 263 new stores globally, growing to over 1,300 stores worldwide, and closed out the second half of the year with a 12.2% increase in comparable sales. Other leading smoothie franchises, such as Tropical Smoothie Café, also reported double-digit growth in 2020.
If people want less sweetness in their smoothies, they also want more purpose, according to Dugan and Gettys. People have become very health conscious. They have specific goals in mind, and they are looking to smoothies to help them along in their journey.
“People are not just seeking out healthy foods – they are looking for a combination of ingredients that will serve a tangible and specific purpose,” Gettys explains. “That places a particular onus on made-to-order smoothie chains to deliver a product that connects the dots.”
Many quick-service smoothie restaurants are already leaning toward menu concepts that are based on purpose: smoothies for pre- or post-workout, for immune health, for joint health, for energy, for detoxification, for losing weight and staying fit, for staying calm or managing anxiety, for protein and muscle building, etc.
For example, Smoothie King’s Stretch & Flex, which is promoted by three-time gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas, contains collagen, tart cherries and plant-based proteins. Another favorite – and a summertime limited-time offer – is Hydration Watermelon, which contains refreshing watermelon and an electrolyte blend that contains sodium, potassium and other electrolytes. It delivers more electrolytes than the leading brands of sports drinks, Gettys noted.
Vitamix and Smoothie King are predicting that the move toward purposeful smoothies will continue. New areas of consumer interest may include brain health and skin health, alongside seasonally relevant areas of interest, such as cold and flu in the winter, and energy and hydration in the summer.
Less Sugar, More Plants, Herbs and Spices
As the smoothie market adjusts to the public’s concerns around excessive sugar, Gettys and Dugan are expecting to see sugary ingredients, such as sorbet, sherbet, honey, fructose, purees, and syrups play a less prominent role in quick-service smoothie recipes. On the other hand, kale, spinach, carrots, and other vegetables will continue to gain ground, they said.
“The blending of tropical fruits with greens is a real winner in today’s smoothie market,” Gettys notes. “You have to remember that while a smoothie must be healthy, it also needs to taste good. So, mixing the antioxidant richness of vegetables with the allure of tropical flavors is the sweet spot for smoothies right now.”
“We are seeing a fast-growing interest in anything plant-based,” Dugan adds. “It’s not just vegans and vegetarians who are interested in plant-based nutrition. There is a broad-based awareness that vegetables, berries, seeds and whole grains play a very important role in our diet.”
Herbs and spices are another set of ingredients that are helpful in managing sugar content in smoothies, and they are gaining a foothold on smoothie menus in quick-service restaurant menus. “When you blend ginger, cinnamon, cocoa, or other herbs and spices into a smoothie, you are adding not only healthful ingredients, but also flavor, and that means you can use less sugar to get a great tasting smoothie,” Gettys says.
While many things about smoothies are evolving, Dugan and Gettys maintain that the category remains essentially stable as a nutritious, calorie-dense beverage that benefits one’s health. Certain fruits are mainstays, such as strawberries, mango and banana. Other ingredients are introduced as the science about what is healthy changes and people’s tastes and preferences evolve.
Always a Treat
While smoothies are intended to be healthy, some people may prefer more sweetness or more richness by way of flavors like chocolate, peanut butter or other nut butters, or frozen yogurt. This is one reason why customization is an important component on smoothie menus.
“No smoothie operator wants to play nutrition police and force consumers into a rigid set of guidelines. We’re here to give people flexibility to choose what is right for them,” Gettys explains. “That’s why you are going to see more customizable options on smoothie menus, even as the menu overall becomes less sweet and more healthy.”
According to market research, the generation most interested in smoothies is Gen Z, closely followed by Millennials. These are also the generations most interested in choice and customization. The challenge for quick-service smoothie restaurants is to introduce customization without slowing down the ordering process or introducing the risk of someone ordering a combination of ingredients that do not go well together.
“The best model for customization is one that holds some ingredients stable while inviting choice on some others,” Gettys explains. “For example, customers can substitute one fruit or vegetable for another; choose among nut butters; or choose between milk and other non-dairy options, like oat milk and almond milk. We are always open to substitutions at Smoothie King, but we also want to steer our customers toward what tastes good.”