The beverage world is shifting. Americans are grabbing seltzer in lieu of soda; they’re drinking vegetables in cocktails; and they’re quick to pull out their phones—drinks in hands—and take a photo to share on social. Demand in frozen beverages has also experienced this shift. Smoothies are all about function right now—think ancient grains, probiotic-packed ingredients, and even CBD, the cannabinoid in cannabis. Slushes are narrowing in on nostalgia, bright flavors, and booze. And blended frozen coffee is meeting the tension between the health movement and trend to over-the-top indulgence.
Smoothies are getting ever healthier. Eric Nakata, vice president of beverage innovation at supplier S&D Coffee & Tea, expects interest in probiotic and antioxidant-rich ingredients like matcha and spirulina to rise, as well as CBDs to help reduce anxiety and pain.
Project Juice, which has 10 locations in California, is very purposeful about what goes into its smoothies. Many menu items, like the firmly blended smoothie Superfood Bowls, are made with coconut cubes derived from raw, young coconut meat that is puréed and frozen. The cubes are a great source of MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) for endurance and protein, says Sascha Weiss, director of product development. He sees more vegetables and mushrooms to act as superfoods and adaptogens in future smoothies, as well as the use of kombucha and drinking vinegar to rise.
Planet Smoothie, with 134 locations nationwide, offers a variety of real fruit smoothies organized by lifestyle categories like Superfood, Energy, and Planet Lite to assist customers in finding the smoothie that fits a desired function. For many of the brand’s customers, smoothies are a quick, portable meal replacement. “We see the market trending toward healthier, natural options,” says Nicole Butcher, director of marketing.
As Butcher says and beverage experts echo, it all comes down to taste, which is derived mostly from natural ingredients in smoothies these days. “The whole idea of real fruit continues to trend very high, as opposed to artificial flavors and colors,” says Becky Westby, Oregon Fruit Products’ senior director of sales.
In contrast, slushes today are dominated by nostalgic artificial flavors that mimic childhood treats. Taco Bell has done so well with its Skittles Strawberry, MTN Dew Baja Blast, and Watermelon (with candy seed pieces) slushes that its Taco Bell Cantina concept now offers Twisted Freezes with alcohol. “By adding Twisted Freezes to the menu, customers are now wanting to come to the Cantinas to not only eat, but to drink as well,” says Jacob Duarte, Taco Bell spokesman. “Twisted Freezes have become an iconic part of our Cantina concept, [and] a huge driver in bringing people in.”
Initially, says Brian Darney, Taco Bell’s senior manager of brand marketing, the brand offered slush flavors that appealed to a broad audience but were easily copied by others. Over the years, Taco Bell has shifted its approach to offer fun and exciting flavors the brand could lay claim to. In the future, Darney sees innovation coming in the form of unique flavors, as well as toppers, foams, and syrups.
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Sonic Drive-In, which offers everything from candy NERD slushes to POWERADE Mountain Berry Blast at its more than 3,600 locations, is also banking on its slush flavors to appeal to the brand’s adventurous guest. “Consumers are seeking more unconventional flavors and interactive experiences,” says Scott Uehlein, vice president of product innovation and development. “We’re seeing a wider variety of flavors, textures, and inclusions.”
Even sophisticated slush offerings at fast casuals are playing off these nostalgic and unconventional flavor themes. Lemonade, with 28 locations in California, seeks to offer artisanal flavors in its frozen offerings. “Dare we say the frozen beverage is finally getting the classy makeover it deserves?” asks Kelly Hansen, vice president of marketing and sales. Dragon Fruit Pink Lemonade, Black Cherry Infused Pink Lemonade, and Orange-Sicle are the FROZade flavors on offer at press time, and more flavors are planned for 2019. “Frozen beverages have gone from a childhood treat to menu mainstay over the past few years as people are pushing frozen drinks to new levels,” Hansen says. Lemonade stepped up its frozen beverage game after watching frozen venture into the cocktail category, Hansen says—first with frosé and now with specialties like the “friesling” (frozen Riesling).
Where will coffee go?
The future of frozen coffee looks split between two functions: the healthy trend using coffee as a shot of caffeine to help people perform throughout the day and the indulgent trend present in over-the-top, Instagram-ready desserts. Despite this tension, however, one thing is for sure: Cold coffee is king. Cold beverages make up more than 50 percent of Starbucks’ beverages, which is an increase of 37 percent from just five years ago, says a Starbucks spokesperson.
Gloria Jean’s Coffees, with 58 locations in the U.S. and nearly 900 internationally, has developed its blended coffee Chillers firmly as treats. “Many of our guests enjoy the experience of a ‘dessert in a cup,’” says Sam Ferreira, president of Retail Food Group-USA, which runs Gloria Jean’s in the U.S. The brand banks on its innovative flavors in LTOs, like its Cinnamon Bun Chiller from 2018, to pique the interest of customers who look forward to the next social-media-share-worthy experience, Ferreira says.
Starbucks, however, is not as firm in the direction it will take its signature Frappuccino. In May 2018, the brand dipped even further into the indulgence category by adding sweet cold-brew whipped-cream layers to the new Ultra Caramel Frappuccino and the Triple Mocha Frappuccino. However, in a June 2018 presentation for investors, Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson noted that the Frappuccino’s revenue had shrunk by 3 percent from the previous year, while revenue from the brand’s more health- and wellness-focused items had increased. Starbucks seems to sense that if coffee brands promoting sugary, blended treats don’t watch out, the healthier-focused brands might swoop in on their sales with coffee-flavored functional drinks like Project Juice’s Mission Mocha.