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Blended Beverages: A Perfect Vehicle for Ingredients Experimentation

Shakes and smoothies converge, but each offers unique attributes for different consumer occasions.

What’s Hot in Frozen Today?

Seasonal ingredients and strong visual presentations can boost sales as special offers.

As temperatures rise nationwide, so, too, will consumer interest in refreshing frozen beverages and treats. On-trend operators who menu smoothies and milkshakes are focusing on seasonality and incorporating more plant-based dairy alternatives and nostalgic ingredients into their smoothie and shake offerings.

Smoothie recipes, for example, are skewing toward customizable, better-for-you formulations with flavorful, nutrient-rich ingredients. But they’re also being developed with visual appeal in mind to attract younger consumers.

Milkshakes, meanwhile, feature more dessert-like ingredients and presentations, though some better-for-you descriptors—including organic, vegan and plant-based—have begun appearing on menus.

Both types of beverages can work well as limited time offers—and can help operators drive excitement and higher tickets as part of seasonal promotions.

Nékter Juice Bar: Elderberry Smoothie

Nékter Juice Bar: Elderberry Smoothie

Introduced late last year, this beverage blends elderberry powder with house-made nut milk, strawberries, blueberries, acerola and agave syrup. It reflects two trends: the increased use of functional ingredients and of plant-based dairy alternatives in smoothies and shakes.

Jamba: Electric Berry Lemonade

Jamba: Electric Berry Lemonade

This newly introduced beverage elevates lemonade with the addition of strawberries, peaches, a grape/pear/berry juice blend, fat-free vanilla frozen yogurt, raspberry sherbet and blue spirulina. Its functional ingredients and colorful presentation will appeal to consumers seeking healthy, eye-catching refreshment.

Carvel: OREO® Cookie Thick Shake

Carvel: OREO® Cookie Thick Shake

This creation, one of several partnerships between Carvel and OREO®, capitalizes on the nostalgia trend that has emerged in the dessert and milkshake categories. Not surprisingly, it’s been a hit with customers, says Dave Fenner, Carvel’s senior director of culinary research and development.

Slaters 50/50: Peppermint Milkshake

Slaters 50/50: Peppermint Milkshake

This creation proves “extreme shakes” are alive and well—and ready for their Instagram close-up. The LTO holiday favorite features vanilla ice cream blended with peppermint, chocolate and coffee and is topped with whipped cream, crushed candy canes, peppermint bark and a fudge brownie.

Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers: OREO® Cookie Mint Concrete

Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers: OREO® Cookie Mint Concrete

Freddy’s OREO® Cookie Mint Concrete is another seasonal favorite that returns annually. It combines mint and OREO® Cookies with vanilla frozen custard and is topped with whipped cream and OREO® Cookie Crumbs.

Milkshakes and smoothies are continuing to gain traction in foodservice, with menu penetration currently standing at 11.4% and 8.3%, respectively, per Datassential MenuTrends. They’re most commonly found in national chains, on dessert and snack menus, and on menus featuring American favorites such as burgers and sandwiches.

Although milkshakes traditionally have been viewed as either dessert items or meal accompaniments, Datassential’s December 2019 Snacking SNAP! Keynote Report shows they—and smoothies—also satisfy between-meal snacking occasions. In fact, nearly half (47%) of Americans surveyed by Datassential said they’re likely to order a blended beverage as a snack, and 44% said they’d order a dessert item as a snack.

Given this consumer behavior insight, it’s not entirely surprising that shakes and smoothies are converging a bit, in terms of the ingredients they feature, including dessert flavors as well as healthy options, and the consumer needs they satisfy.

Both refreshing and portable, shakes and smoothies allow operators to experiment with different flavor combinations and busy consumers to satiate hunger or satisfy a craving on the go. Some of the healthier features typically associated with smoothies (such as plant-based dairy alternatives) have begun appearing in the milkshake category, however, and both milkshakes and smoothies increasingly have overlapped with blended coffee drinks.

What will this mean for operators as we move into summer and the height of blended beverage season? Jamie Howe, Datassential’s Trends & Insights Practice lead, says much of the innovation in this space has been inspired by dessert and flavor trends, which center on several key themes.

Seasonal: Operators are increasingly using the term “seasonal” in their milkshake descriptions (up 17% since 2015), as they incorporate such ingredients as pumpkin, cinnamon and seasonal fruits. Another trend that reflects seasonality is what Howe calls “dessert formats as flavors,” citing such examples as milkshakes incorporating pumpkin pie, apple pie and Key lime pie.

“Chains have done some fun, limited time offers around this type of 'desserts as a flavor' platform,” she says.

Nostalgia: Some of these “formats as flavors” overlap with the trend toward nostalgic milkshake offerings as well, Howe continues, citing as examples birthday cake, which is up 160% in the last four years as a milkshake flavor, as well as cotton candy (up 230%) and s’mores (up 141%).

Savory ingredients: The combination of sweet and savory has been trending in desserts (and other areas of the menu), featuring such ingredients as bacon (up 171%) and pretzels (up 81%). “Those ingredients also add texture and can create an experience,” Howe says.

Extreme shakes and inclusions: Although some industry observers say the days of the “extreme shake” are numbered, operators continue to embrace them—a result, perhaps, of their social media appeal. Colorful inclusions are related to this trend; the term “candy” alone is up 182% on milkshake menu descriptions in the last four years, according to Datassential. “Candy inclusions, sprinkles, cereal and bacon all speak to some of the trends we’re seeing” for Instagram-ready food, Howe confirms.

Better-for-you claims and ingredients are appearing on milkshake menus as well. The term “organic” has grown 262% in the last four years, for example, while “vegan” has increased 221%. “Gluten-free” is up 125%, and “protein” has risen 40%. Just as vegan milkshakes are on the rise, so, too, are dairy substitutes such as almond milk (up 15%).

Milkshakes: A perennial summer favorite

Fast casual and quick service restaurants in particular have embraced the appeal of great-tasting milkshakes, says Dave Fenner, senior director of culinary research and development at Carvel. “With summer quickly approaching, this demand will only go up,” he adds.

Carvel has found that consumers are interested in classic flavors, as well as specialty shakes featuring ingredients from well-known brands. Take the chain’s OREO® Cookie Thick Shake, for instance. “Carvel is a beloved brand and, partnered with America’s favorite cookie, we knew this would be a winner,” Fenner says.

Carvel is on to something here: Per Datassential, OREO® usage as a milkshake ingredient is up 38% since 2015.

Coffee-flavored milkshakes also have performed well. Carvel’s cold-brew coffee shake is one of the chain’s most popular new offerings, in fact, he adds.

Finally, this spring, Carvel rolled out a Crunchies ice cream treat lineup that included the Crunchies Shake, made with vanilla soft ice cream blended with fudge and Crunchies (chocolate cookies coated with chocolate).

Smoothies: Taste and health converge

Smoothie innovation, meanwhile, is keeping pace with shakes as consumers increasingly gravitate to smoothies as both a summer treat and a functional beverage, says Mark Gabrovic, vice president and executive chef at smoothie chain Jamba.

Already “an incredible option for portable wellness,” smoothies “continue to remain top of mind for consumers who don’t want to limit flavor while supporting their active lifestyle journey,” he explains. “Consumers want options they can personalize to best suit their needs, whether that be with plant-based alternatives, energy-boosting ingredients or added protein.”

Whether it’s a dietary need or preference, dairy-free is, in fact, on the rise: Datassential confirms dairy-free mentions on smoothie menus have increased 113% since 2015. Popular dairy alternatives include:

  • Coconut milk: up 195%
  • Almond milk: up 172%
  • Soy milk: up 97%

Avocado (up 65%) and almond butter (up 72%) also can serve as dairy replacements in smoothies.

“In our world, plant-based menu items continue to be a high-demand alternative to classic dairy options,” says Gabrovic, noting that Jamba received a considerable amount of positive feedback from customers when it introduced oat milk in 2019. “This isn’t a trend that will be going away anytime soon.”

Also not going away: unconventional flavors and textures. Datassential's Howe notes that tropical fruit flavors—think lychee, dragon fruit, acai, guava, passion fruit and mango—are appearing on more smoothie menus, as is lassi, an Indian yogurt and milk beverage (up 48% since 2015). Coffee and tea also continue to gain ground in this segment, with smoothie menu appearances of matcha and cold brew up 183% and an astounding 980%, respectively, since 2015.

Consumers are also interested in nutrient-rich additives (known as “boosts” in Jamba lingo) that provide an extra helping of vitamins, energy or protein. “We’re constantly exploring and adding new and popular ingredients to our juices, smoothies and bowls, including matcha, turmeric and spirulina,” Gabrovic continues. The goal, he says, is to give guests the “fun and flavor” they’re craving while also serving up essential fruits, vegetables and other health benefits.

Both smoothies and milkshakes provide rewarding refreshment for consumers, and both allow operators to experiment with flavors and ingredients to create unique seasonal, limited-time or signature offers that can often generate considerable consumer buzz on social media. Operators should understand that these blended beverages are also subject to many of the consumer demands that are impacting overall food preferences across the industry. These include the increased interest in plant-based and functional ingredients, and in the comforts provided by nostalgia and familiar brands.

Mondelēz International Foodservice offers ideas and inspiration for operators seeking to capitalize on the blended beverage trend in their business. Check out our recipes for this Double - Chocolate Milkshake made with OREO® Cookies, this Banana Blended Ice made with NUTTER BUTTER® Cookies and this Frozen Berry Yogurt Milkshake made with HONEY MAID® Graham Crackers. For more insights, download Mondelēz International Foodservice’s white paper on The Unlimited Opportunity for Limited Time Offers.

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