In view of summer, we look into the soft drinks and mixers category and ways in which venue operators can capitalise their non-alcoholic offering.

Soft drinks and mixers have been around for over a century, but recent years have seen a surge in their popularity. With a wide range of flavours and options available, soft drinks and mixers have become an important part of modern dining and a must in any drinks outlet.

One reason for the rise of soft drinks and mixers can be attributed to the growing demand for healthier options. Consumers are increasingly conscious of the health implications of sweetened beverages and are turning to soft drinks made with natural sugars, lower calorie count and organic ingredients.

Another factor driving the rise of the category is the growing popularity of cocktails and sophisticated mixed drinks. Mixers allow bartenders and home entertainers to create professional-level cocktails without the need for extensive training. Industry giants known for their high-quality tonic water and soda water have grown rapidly by offering premium mixers to the discerning drinker who wishes to elevate their beverage.

For this and other reasons that we will be analysing in the course of this informative piece, venue operators need to carefully consider and curate their soft drinks and mixers offering to ensure they can cater to all.

Charlotte Stainforth, Marketing and Brand Manager at Frobishers, says: “A soft drinks offering that can work day to night is vital. Fruit juices are mainly consumed in the early hours, with a shift to a lighter option as the day progresses such as a delicately sparkling drink. Versatile soft drinks that can be sold as a mixer to a premium spirit or crafted into a show-stopping cocktail save valuable fridge space.”

Charlotte dives into expected trends for 2023, stating that ‘soft drinks are no longer the soft options’, with Gen Z leading the search for innovative and traditional flavours alike from sustainable brands that use quality ingredients.

She continues: “Premiumisation is still a key trend. Stocking brands that are not available in supermarkets always makes for new shared experiences and creates a sense of occasion, which can go a long way.

Social media has also played a significant role in the increased popularity of the premiumisation phenomenon. Platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have transformed the way we consume and share information about food and drink. The visually appealing nature of cocktails and mocktails has made them a popular subject of these platforms, leading to increased interest in drinks and their ingredients – meaning the attention has been brought to soft drinks and mixers just as much as quality alcoholic options.

“Presentation matters too,” Charlotte finishes, “Glassware, quality ice and a fresh garnish can elevate the pour.

While Charlotte gives us a first outline of the category’s expected performance this year, Co-Founder of nunc, Andrew Mills, tells us about his experience with the soft drinks and mixers market when they first started the company.

Andrew says: “When we started nunc, the selection of non-alcoholic drinks available in bars, pubs and restaurants were limited to the usual suspects of mass produced soft drinks – and even the non-alcoholic beer selection was unsatisfying.

“With nunc, we wanted to create adult flavours and for us that meant avoiding sweetness, focusing on aromas, and using botanicals to layer flavours that would create a taste journey. Soft drinks do not need to be two-dimensional and boring. For example, our Hops Monster flavour is an adult soft drink but it’s a great alternative to a non-alcoholic beer.”

Despite the fact that most hospitality operators know and understand the rise in demand for adult soft drinks and mixers, some businesses still haven’t dedicated the time to update their offering – which to Andrew comes as a baffling revelation.

He says: “Depending on the survey you read, around 30% of young people don’t drink alcohol (and even more are cutting back), so why would you limit your venue’s audience by not offering a range of non-alcoholic drinks?  

“Besides, not all soft drinks are created the same: one of our flavours is called Chilli Cha Cha and it’s made with actual Scotch Bonnet Chillies, and when was the last time you heard of a chilli-flavoured soft drink?! For us, having a varied range of soft drinks allows the venue to cater to a growing audience who are seeking an adult experience without the alcohol.”

When explaining how venue operators can capitalise on the category, Andrew highlights that bars and pubs have overlooked the importance of catering to all types of drinkers – in this instance, especially those who prefer soft drinks over alcoholic beverages and who sometimes get mocked for wanting to opt for no and low varieties. Instead, he suggests changing this attitude to one more in-tune with this evolving trend.

Andrew comments:  “Venues are doing themselves and their customers a disservice by paying scant attention to non-alcoholic drinks. If venues want to capitalise on the adult soft drink category, they should start taking these drinks seriously, have a wider range of them available, ensure their staff are knowledgeable about what’s available, and increase product visibility – they should be as prominent as the alcoholic drinks.”

When looking at how to market their soft drinks and mixers offering, one of the first things bar managers should think about is how to stock them in a way that not only is comfortable for the staff to reach and serve, but also for the guests to see and be enticed by.

Ensuring the non-alcoholic offering is as visible as the spirits, beers and wines selection, will suggest that the non-drinkers are taken as seriously as those who are, and that the options available are as handpicked as alcoholic beverages.

What’s more, carefully choosing a bar’s adult soft drinks and mixers will only appeal to customers and, in turn, boost revenue. Research has shown that, post-COVID, a considerable percentage of consumers seek higher-quality drinks in licensed venues, meaning they will often pay the value for trade up.

However, it is important to ensure you cater to all and therefore provide a varied range of 0%ABV drinks. James Nichols, Commercial Controller at Vimto, says: “As ever, choice will remain key, and so operators need to be offering the right mix of big brands and own-label. At Vimto Out Of Home, we provide our customers with the opportunity to have up to eight brands on one gun, which is double the average – providing greater range flexibility.”

James also suggests that another way in which operators can look to promote their soft drinks offering is through capitalising on all major events taking place this year, such as the King’s Coronation next month and the Rugby World Cup in September through to the end of October.

He says: “Speed of service will be a key consideration during these occasions. By having versatile and popular mixers available on post mix, staff will be able to serve customers more quickly, reduce waiting times and improve operations – it will also free up fridge space for more expensive options, encouraging customers to trade-up and boost sales.”

Wrapping up our thoughts on the category, Senior Trade Communications Manager at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP), Amy Burgess, shares her insights on consumer preferences ahead of the busy, warmer months to come, advising to stock up on trade-up options.

She says: “As consumer attitude towards premium changes, it presents further opportunities for outlets to give a full premium experience alongside dining too. In fact, whilst a core range of soft drinks that are firm favourites with consumers is integral to licensed outlets, we also recognise that consumers often want to try something new when they’re out – particularly if they’re celebrating a special occasion.

“Operators can deliver quality by giving people something special that they can’t recreate at home. Delivering the perfect serve can elevate any drink, such as using elegant glassware and stylish garnishes.”

Finally, Amy suggests to look for new releases and innovative, refreshing flavours to quench the thirst of the spring/summer crowds. Many brands have been experimenting with tropical fruits and unique aroma combinations in order to satisfy the need for avant-garde products that allow drinkers and non-drinkers to live the same fantastic experience that is hospitality.

“They are arriving just in time for the warmer trading period,” she concludes, “whereby consumers often look for lighter, fruitier refreshments like spritzers and mixed drinks with white spirits.”

Overall, the rise of soft drinks and mixers is a reflection of the changing tastes and preferences of consumers. As they continue to seek out healthier and more sophisticated beverage options, the trend towards soft drinks and mixers is likely to continue for years to come.

This means that venue operators need to equip their outlets accordingly, learning more about the category and the trends driving the soaring demand for non-alcoholic options. In turn, this will allow them to attract a wider audience and boost revenue.

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