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Healthy Beverages Add Muscle to the Menu

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Creamsicle Smoothie from Energy Kitchen

By Ellen Koteff, editor-in-chief, FoodChannelPRO

Healthy beverages on restaurant menus have been gaining momentum and the shift towards drinks with fruit and antioxidants is the natural extension of that trend.

‘Healthful beverages allow foodservice customers to feel virtuous, pampered and satisfied all at the same time,’ says Gail Bellamy, Restaurant Hospitality’s executive food editor.

‘Whether it’s bottled green tea, fresh-squeezed juice, or a light meal-in-a-glass smoothie, these drinks deliver convenience along with flavor. With today’s nutrition awareness, drinkable snacks offer a quick, healthful pick-me-up. That’s a winning combination.’

Several innovative operators are picking up on the ‘halo of health’ beverage trend in a big way. FoodChannelPRO sat down with two of them.

Founded in 2004 Manhattan-based Energy Kitchen is a healthy, fast-casual restaurant that provides nutritious and convenient meal choices by offering low-calorie, low-fat, wraps, salads, burgers and smoothies. Everything on the menu is 500 calories or less and is grilled, baked or steamed, never fried, and cooked to order. Behind the strength of a 2008 investment partnership with Mike Repole, the co-founder of Vitaminwater, which sold to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion, Energy Kitchen has already grown the concept to 10 restaurants throughout the greater New York metropolitan area and recently launched a national expansion plan.

The concept’s founder, Anthony Leone, is on the front lines of business development and actively involved in menu innovation. Here’s his take on the trend and his bottomline.

Has your business in the snack hours from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. improved as a result of the healthy drinks on your menu?

Yes, people during those hours are looking for a snack to get them through the middle of the day lull that everyone hits, but they do not want to just grab anything. We see a lot of guests coming in for our smoothies, which are a great way to have something healthy on the go. Our smoothies are low calorie and full of energy-boosting protein, and we also do custom blends so that guests can create their ideal pick-me-up by adding things like Echinacea, Vitamin C, Whey Protein, and more.

Do you see an increasing demand for healthy beverages in foodservice?
Yes, my partner Mike Repole was co-founder and president of Vitaminwater. He proved that people want to get away from the sodas and do not want to drink their calories. That is why at Energy Kitchen we only have low calorie beverage alternatives.

What is your most popular healthy drink?
One of our most popular drinks is our Vaccinator Smoothie. It’s made with orange juice, bananas, fresh strawberries and packed with Vitamin C. The Vaccinator is only 183 calories for a 24 ounce serving size.

How were the healthy beverages created? How long was the process? Where did the ideas come from?
Each beverage on our menu is created with our guests in mind. Our focus is always on low calorie, high nutrition, and tasty beverages. We look at seasonal and popular ingredients, the nutrition needs of our consumers and we get to work finding a way to create beverages that taste amazing, are packed with protein and vitamins, and remain low in calories; something most concepts aren’t doing. Sometimes the process can take months, but we want to make sure that we’re doing it right and that these are beverages our guests are going to love.

Do you think there is room to grow in the healthy drink, snack category? If yes, how much?
Absolutely, our smoothie category is up 72% from last year. This year we introduced Pirates Booty, which are trans-fat & gluten-free, low calorie baked snacks, to our restaurants and the customer feedback has been great. People are looking to take the thinking out of eating healthy and our restaurants and snacks allow you to do that because we eliminate any temptation from our restaurants. Every Energy Kitchen location is full of nutritious, low calorie, tasty snack and meal options.

Tropical Smoothie Café's Açai Berry Boost

Read The Food Channel Top Ten Snack Trends for 2010

Tropical Smoothie Franchise Development Corp. was founded in 1997 by Eric and Delora Jenrich, and their partner, David Walker.

Later that same year the first franchised unit opened in Tallahassee, Fla. In early 1999 food was added to the menu and the name was changed to Tropical Smoothie Café smoothie cafe to reflect that shift in menu.

In 2005 the chain embarked on a corporate redesign to reflect a true tropical environment. Tropical Smoothie Café includes menu options for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ranked 127 out of 500 and rated one of the fastest growing franchises by Entrepreneur Magazine, the concept currently has 285 locations in 34 states.

Barbara Valentino, vice president of marketing and communications for Tropical Smoothie Café, sat down with FoodChannelPRO to discuss the healthy drinks trend.

How much of your business comes from the snack hours of 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.?
The snack period between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. currently represents about 24% of our daily sales for the average Café.

Do you see an increasing demand for healthy beverages in foodservice?
I believe that consumers are looking for high quality and innovative food and beverage products. As more foodservice folks get in to this business, the awareness for these kinds of products grows as the demand increases. Consumers today are much more savvy and want high quality ingredients packed with nutrition, which Tropical Smoothie Café provides.

What is your most popular healthy drink?
One of our most popular smoothies is the Açai Berry Boost. This smoothie is one of several in our ‘Supercharged Smoothie’ category and contains powerful antioxidants including açai, pomegranate, banana, blueberries and strawberries. Our smoothies are made with a full 24 ounces of fruit, blended with ice and sweetened with Splenda or Turbinado. An Açai Berry Boost with Splenda is only 290 calories and with Turbinado it is 450. This smoothie has 50% of your daily requirements of Vitamin A and 150% of Vitamin C.

How were the healthy beverages created? How long was the process? Where did the ideas come from?
The company was founded in 1997 and the founders really looked at what they liked and developed some great recipes. As the company matured, we used some of our vendors to help us develop new flavor profiles and also study various trends that matched our customers through strategic focus groups.

Once we develop a recipe, we typically do a market test which can last anywhere from 4-12 weeks. We measure the results and determine if, and when, to roll it out. Our franchise community is very creative as well and some of our really good ideas come from them.

Do you think there is room to grow in the healthy drink, snack category? If yes, how much?
Absolutely. I think that consumers today are looking for a healthy pick me up and a real fruit smoothie fits that bill. I think parents are always looking at ways to get their children to eat more fruit and kids just love these products!

Is there a particular consumer demographic you are targeting with these beverages? Who do they appeal to the most?
I think this product skews a little bit more toward females and our demo is a little more female than male. Our primary demo is 25-54, mid-upper income and they are healthy and quality conscious and well educated. That being said – we have tweens and seniors that love our products as well.

See the Consumer Top Ten Snack Trends by clicking here.