The Sizzle of Fizzle
Craft sodas are bubblinginto restaurant beverage programs, and innovative drink masters are concocting compelling beverages that actually focus attention on non-alcoholic offerings and, in particular, sodas.
“It’s not cool or trendy to drink the average soda. People are expecting something creative, something different,” says Jade Mathews, co-owner of Hillside Farmacy in Austin, Texas, which boasts a revolving array of craft sodas, such as the Pickpocket (strawberry, basil, and balsamic), the Rosewood (lemon and rosemary), and Root Cola (carrot, ginger, and peppercorn).
“Our menu was creative and we wanted a creative outlet for our drinks as well,” Mathews says.
Hillside is far from alone in the craft soda rush, an emerging trend seeking to reverse years of declining soda sales and reenergize consumer interest in carbonated beverages.
At Chicago’s 2 Sparrows, house-made “Sparrow Sodas” include the Birds Nest (raspberry, lemon, and juniper) and a cucumber, mint, and lime creation artfully dubbed the ‘Cool As A…’ soda. While another Chicago restaurant, Mercadito Hospitality’s nearly two-year-old Tavernita, dispenses the White Grape (white grape, rose water, and golden raisins) as well as Ginger Chile Ale (fresh ginger, guindilla, and orange blossom honey) from a keg delivery system.
“A Sprite is a Sprite and Coke is Coke, but these craft sodas enhance the experience at our restaurants and differentiate us from the competition,” Mercadito Hospitality managing partner Alfredo Sandoval says.
Representing a fresh alternative to restaurants’ nonalcoholic beverage staples, ambitious mixologists have leveraged local, seasonal, and natural ingredients—from honey and cane sugar to oils and herbs—to produce craft sodas with dynamic flavors.
“Farm-to-table and organic have become so mainstream in culinary that it’s only natural they’d move to the beverage side,” Sandoval says.
While some specialty grocers have embraced craft soda, Paul Tanguay of Tippling Brothers—a national beverage consultancy and the force behind Tavernita’s beverage program—says restaurants continue running behind the curve.
“In restaurants, it’s been difficult to find creative beverage options beyond alcohol,” Tanguay says.
Yet, both Sandoval and Mathews tout craft sodas as a win for restaurants and their guests.
In addition to reinforcing Tavernita’s innovative mission, Sandoval says the shop’s house-made sodas produce more refreshing, clean flavors complementing the restaurant’s cuisine. The sodas also deliver creative beverage options to those who cannot drink alcohol, such as minors, pregnant women, or designated drivers, as well as those eager to experiment with new tastes.
There’s also added revenue opportunity. Craft sodas typically run about double the price of a mainstream soda, revenue potential that jumps when the craft soda is used as a cocktail mixer. At Tavernita, every house-made soda wiggles into a specialty cocktail. For instance, the Jack & Ginger, a rum-and-Coke alternative, pairs Tavernita’s Chile Ginger Ale with Jack Daniels.
“[Using the craft soda as a mixer] is where I see a huge market,” Tanguay says. “You have a slight upsell opportunity, but also a better quality product that’s different than anywhere else.”
Hillside’s sodas cost $4 virgin and $8 with an added spirit. All of the shop’s craft sodas are served in tall mason jars and garnished.
“With or without alcohol, we dress them up to look like a cocktail, which adds that pinch of class,” Mathews says.
Hillside’s sodas are crafted in-house each week using ingredients sourced from seven local farms, so Mathews says staff can build creative soda concoctions by using excess kitchen produce, while simultaneously minimizing the shop’s storage burden. And since Hillside regularly rotates its sodas according to seasonal produce, the restaurant can broadcast its latest offerings on social media.
“The new sodas excite people and show our restaurant’s creative side,” Mathews says, adding that a local café recently inquired about purchasing Hillside’s syrups to replicate the drinks in its own eatery.
As craft soda’s allure grows, however, Tanguay remains realistic about the category’s potential. Producing craft soda demands skilled labor and carries higher costs than simply serving mainstream soda options.
“If you’re not doing mixology now, craft soda will be a hard area to enter. You need to have someone who loves it and takes care of the program,” Tanguay says. “If that’s in place, though, then you have some real possibilities.”