Capturing the Essence of Fresh by Gary Vega

Fresh Cocktails by Gary Vega of Cutting Egde Marketing

You’ve just been promoted to Director of Food and Beverage for an upscale multi-unit concept and given the task of creating a beverage program that promotes “fresh” cocktails. “That’s easy,” you think; “just create recipes that use only scratch ingredients.” After all, nothing could promote “fresh” better that the exclusive use of scratch ingredients, right?

Just then, you revert back to your days in operations and ask yourself, “Will this approach give me the necessary consistency we require throughout the year and at all locations?” All of a sudden what was once perceived to be a simple task has now turned into a much bigger challenge. At one time or another, every beverage director has asked the question, “How can I capture the ‘essence of fresh’ while maintaining an operationally-efficient beverage program?” In an effort to answer this age-old question, let’s first examine the meaning of the term “essence of fresh,” which in reality means the “perception of fresh.”

If something is perceived to be fresh, the perception must be triggered by one of the senses. It should either look fresh, smell fresh, taste fresh, or sound fresh, through description or through the creation process. Therefore a cocktail that favorably stimulates the senses in essence, no pun intended, delivers the “perception or essence of fresh.” If one agrees with this premise, then the real question becomes, “How can one create and deliver cocktails that favorably stimulate the senses while maximizing drink-making efficiencies?”

Fresh Ingredients in Cocktails by Gary Vega of Cutting Edge Marketing

This task may not be as challenging as one might think if you examine some of the realities of a typical bar/dining establishment. When you consider the fact that as few as 10% of the patrons in this setting actually see the entire process of their cocktail being created by their bar chef, you realize delivering a cocktail that consistently captures the “essence of fresh” is not only doable but can be done efficiently.

One could argue, however, that great drink-making should be as much about showmanship as it is about taste and perception. This point is echoed by the recent comments of John O’Connell, Corporate Director – Food & Beverage, for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. “Watching a chef or mixologist prepare something is not only exciting for today’s customers, but it also allows them to see the fresh ingredients and experience the process. Open kitchens and bars that allow the consumer to get up close and personal provide great theater for this.”

John, like many of his contemporaries, understands the need to develop the proper balance between the art of drink-making and the required efficiencies necessary for national multi-unit operations. “Scratch-made cocktails are the best you can get, but a drink with 15 steps of preparation is not always feasible for a bar or restaurant that is high volume and needs to crank out 200 plus drinks an hour.” He appreciates the quality and simplicity of today’s premium purees, syrups, and mixes that offer a wide range of flavors. Noting they not only deliver great taste but also simplify the drink-making process, he added, Today, there are many drink mixes that use fresh juices and high-quality ingredients. If you start with these high-quality mixes as a base and finish your cocktail with a squeeze of fresh fruit and some fresh herbs as a garnish, you can create a cocktail that not only has the appearance, aroma, and taste of freshness, but will also satisfy the need for high volume.”

High Quality Cocktail Mixes by Gary Vega of Cutting Edge Marketing

Jeff Ruth, Beverage Innovation Director for Monin Gourmet Flavorings, supports the benefits of a balanced approach to capturing the “essence of fresh” in quality drink-making. Jeff notes, “Today’s consumers are in search of true or real value in their beverage choices. Using fresh ingredients in cocktails results in better-tasting premium cocktails and elicits desired perceptions such as ‘made to order’ or ‘made from scratch.’ Additionally, cocktails prepared with exotic, local, or even functional fresh ingredients can take on a more creative or culinary feel, which has become sought after in the mainstream, and can sometimes command higher purchase prices, intent, and overall consumer satisfaction.”

Jeff also addresses some procurement challenges related to the exclusive use of fresh/scratch ingredients when he offers, “The utilization of fresh/scratch ingredients in beverage preparation is not without challenges, however. Certain trade-offs often have to be reconciled by both the operator and consumer with regard to execution and consistency. Unlike RTU mixes, fresh ingredients are not always in season, and while they may be easily obtained, often they do not taste as good as they do when they are in season. Furthermore, produce quality and availability can vary greatly from one region to another, creating vast inconsistencies when operating multi-unit outlets in numerous states.”

Jeff adds, “Extracting flavor and balance in beverages from fresh ingredients can be laborious and is best executed by skilled technicians. The perception of taste regarding fresh ingredients is often at odds with the reality of taste. Fresh ingredients need a catalyst to carry the flavor. Beverages, unlike food, cannot take advantage of volume to create flavor…there is just simply not enough room in the glass. The addition of sugar has long been, and remains, the option of choice to address this issue.”

“However, in today’s market, sweetness comes in many different forms. Beverage sweetness can come from pure cane syrup, agave nectar, honey, and even contrasting or complementing flavored syrups. I prefer flavored syrups for the most part, as I can create unusual and interesting flavor combinations with the fresh ingredients while at the same time enhancing the flavor of fresh. I consider, in these cases, the flavored syrup as the supporting actor with the fresh ingredient the star!”

Leanna Mix, Director of Customer Experience, Global Accounts, for Kerry, offers additional insight into consumer preference for “perceptions of fresh” when she adds, “Customers are drawn to the perception of fresh because it promises flavor, dimension, and organoleptic dynamics that leave a lasting impression. It’s a preference that goes way back for most of us: picture the childhood enterprise of selling lemonade. Put a ‘freshly-squeezed’ stand next to ‘powdered mix’ stand, and see which develops a longer line of eager customers.”

She adds, “Mix suppliers understand the appeal, and can address the down sides associated with fresh by making use of innovative, natural technology to bring the best beverage solutions. Kerry uses a variety of ingredient, processing, and packaging technologies to establish the key qualities associated with the concept of fresh – bright flavors, aroma, and visual cues of fruit identity.”

“Kerry uses real fruit juice in our Fruit Innovations line to reinforce the perception of fresh. The keys are natural sweet and tart fruit flavors, along with ingredients that manifest in the finished drink like fresh ingredients. Some of the products deliver the extra benefit of making exotic ingredients accessible. For instance, yuzu is a favored ingredient with mixologists but is terribly difficult to source. Our Asian Citrus Fruit Innovations combines yuzu with other citrus and spice ingredients for a pleasing, balanced formula that is consistent every time.”

David Commer, President of Commer Beverage, has been creating specialty drink and beverage programs for over twenty-five years as a beverage director with major national chains and as one of the leading development specialists in the beverage industry. David not only understands the art of cocktail-making but also the importance of beverage consistency in multi-unit operations. He offers a unique perspective when addressing areas critical in the minds of beverage directors. “While it is a generally-held belief that fresh is better, consistency is extremely important. My opinion is that a concept should execute the best quality it can execute consistently, within its profitability parameters. One area sometimes overlooked is whether an operation and the staff can handle fresh juices. There are volume, storage, and consistency concerns when considering the mix element. Although a skilled chef or bar staff can make adjustments depending on the variability of the quality and flavor of the fresh ingredients due to seasonality, we normally don’t want local operators adjusting or needing to adjust recipes in a multi-unit environment, where consistency is critical.”

Fresh Mixers by Gary Vega of Cutting Edge Marketing

So how does an operator determine the best method to deliver the “essence of fresh” consistently? David recommends the use of quality mixes as the perfect starting point. He argues, “Mixes are a critically important component of mixed drinks as they make up the majority of the beverage. They come in several options, from RTU, to fresh frozen, to fresh ingredients in bulk, to freshly-prepared by hand. All of these options fill a need. Much of what a concept chooses depends on the concept, where they are positioned, and their capabilities. In this case, prepared mixes or ingredients provide for consistent quality and execution across the country and around the world. There is a place for everything.”

This is certainly the posture taken by many of the leading mix companies. Tim Barr, Vice-President of Marketing & Strategy for the American Beverage Corporation and its Daily’s brand, reinforces the quality platform that drives his company’s approach. Tim illustrates this point when he states, “We started making fresh juices and juice products over 50 years ago. From the beginning, we realized the importance of sourcing only the highest-quality ingredients available regardless of the challenge this presented. By starting with high-quality ingredients and adding expert blending techniques, ABC is able to deliver products that are great tasting, consistent, and a real value to our customers.” Tim adds, “Our goal is to make the same great tasting beverages everyday of the year, which is something made-from-scratch recipes cannot always deliver. We source our juices and purees from all over the world and then do the expert blending for the bar chefs, saving them time, money, and headaches. We try to bring you as close to fresh as when using all scratch ingredients, but with ease and much more consistency.”

Obviously creating juice and mix products that can deliver the “essence of fresh” requires tremendous technical skills. But in reality, many of the leading juice and mix companies have such capabilities, as do the leading flavor companies such as Kerry and B&D Flavours of Canada. Don Poole, President CEO of Bonnie & Don Flavours, reinforces the importance of flavor impact in today’s leading mixer brands. “Whether one uses 100% juices or purees to make syrup bases, it is imperative to add some flavor to give more character to a product that has been stripped of most of its natural taste by heat processing. Even if juice or puree is not heat-treated, added flavor tends to give these mix products a consistent taste from batch to batch,” offers Don. “As we all understand, with Mother Nature, crops vary by region and throughout the year going from fresh to ripe to over ripe. This creates the perfect opportunity to utilize our blending expertise to create the proper balance and consistency required for high-quality base products.”

Don additionally remarked, “We have had tremendous success with our essential oil extracts and processes. Using these oils (e.g., orange, lemon, grapefruit, and cardamom) in our own cold extraction process, we have developed some great flavors that blend perfectly with a wide range of product formats. For instance, our lime extract is made from expressed lime oil, which is fantastic in daiquiris, gimlets, and similarly structured products. We have perfected the process to the point that upon dilution in water, the resultant mixture is clear, not cloudy. This has allowed us to impact mixers and the flavored water market in a significant way.” In closing, Don noted, “Our development capabilities allow us to work with product development companies as well as directly with chains to maximize our technical capabilities to meet almost any flavor or taste target.”

Mix Matters by Gary Vega of Cutting Edge MarketingSo if I’m that new food & beverage director tasked with creating a “fresh” beverage program, I certainly have a lot to think about, especially when I consider this added tidbit from Michael Bombard, partner and Master Mixologist with Straight-Up-Solutions, who adds, “The resurgence of the cocktail over the past five plus years has been nothing short of amazing. The ‘bar’ for bartenders has been raised and continues to rise because chains want to keep up with the consumer demand for unique, innovative cocktails. Understanding this and knowing that cost and ease of execution are paramount for chain restaurants, the industry has expanded its lines of syrups and purees, and sales have grown exponentially. However, there is no doubt that ‘fresh’ is, and will always be, a word that exemplifies quality and perceived value. Given the health revolution that has caused many to forsake sugar and artificial items, the question will continue to be, ‘Is it better to save on cost and be operationally efficient, or take the challenge to implement fresh and absorb the costs that come with it?’ Personally, as a consultant, I believe there is a place for both. Syrups and purees continue to evolve in flavor, color, and creativity as they combine numerous flavors into one bottle. However, at the same time there is no substitute for fresh ingredients. Many times just the fresh fruit garnish alone gives the cocktail a handcrafted ‘fresh’ appeal that our New Age consumer is searching for.”

So capturing the “essence of fresh” is easier than first thought. I guess it just requires finding the perfect balance. After all, perception is reality as it relates to quality drink-making!