Why Mocktails Matter

Whenever I’m out dining with friends and the initial drink order comes around to me, a hush always falls over the table and the server’s mouth falls agape when I ask, “What can you offer without alcohol?” It’s hard not to feel like a social outcast because the answers invariably smack of a patronizing “Duh?” kind of tone; “Welllll…we have the normal selection of fountain drinks, sparkling water and still. Oh! And iced tea!” Brilliant.

The restaurant owner plops down hundreds of thousands of dollars on a business that may yield a profit just under 5% if absolutely nothing goes wrong, the culinary staff went into tuition debt for a 13 dollar-an-hour career, and every aspect of the server’s wage and tip is under a national microscope. In light of all this sacrifice, investment, and vulnerability, the one item that every single customer enjoys during every single experience in your restaurant, a glass of water or refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, is relegated to the “We have what everybody else has” category, and darn you for making us think about it. This is precisely the attitude towards hospitality and guest experience that can all but guarantee failure in the next 3-5 years. Every aspect of your restaurant needs to be better. Today, even the glass of water is at play.

Brad Barnes, CMC, instructor at the Culinary Institute of America and consultant to of such clients as the Armed Forces of the United States told us 3 years ago that “Soda is dead.” He forecasted that it would be almost impossible to find a soda machine in a mess hall 2 years from now, and it’s looking like he was right. The same onus the market is putting on food and service these days (regional and seasonal relevance, cultural preservation, authenticity, craftsmanship, engaging and entertaining, etc…) is being focused on beverage programs. This is more than evident with cocktail and craft beer menus exploding the last 5-10 years. Yet, the non-alcoholic drink is sitting there like the last kid to be picked in a kickball game.

This is easy, and inspiration can be found everywhere. The easiest mocktails are 2-4 ingredient popular adult beverages with the alcohol removed. My favorite example is the Moscow Mule. Ginger ale (make your own) thin slices of fresh ginger, 2-3 generous squeezes of lime, and a mint sprig served in a copper mug. It’s simple, and most of the time it’s only discounted 1-2 dollars for the omission of the alcohol-a profit generator for sure!

I also like a “No-jito,” cucumber and lime soda, aqua forte, lasses, seasonal fruit muddled with bitters, honey and topped with soda water, you name it! Don’t limit yourself to sweet drinks either. Think of all the smoothies you’ve had with cruciferous greens, yogurt, nuts and what have you. It isn’t a long jump to turn these flavor combinations into dining room beverages, is it? And what about asking the kitchen for ideas?

Mocktail special can easily be crafted using leftover produce that may otherwise turn into waste-and there’s the added benefit of getting the kitchen engaged in the process. They’ll be bringing the bar ideas before you know it! The possibilities are endless really, and once you get started you’ll ask yourself why you didn’t do it sooner. By the way, I prefer mocktail to “virgin”-the term “virgin” is insulting to anyone over the age of 12 and will limit your sales tremendously.

I’ve said it before; these unique (and fun) beverages are conversation starters, unexpected oasis of creativity and surprise, and elevate a previously thoughtless aspect of the experience in your dining room. As a chef, I am particularly enamored with these because it allows the rare chance for the bar tender and chef to get together and create, instead of arguing in the kitchen about swizzle sticks and who pays for the olives.

Recently I dined with our own Guy Zehner, Maines VP of Sales, and my meal was paired with non-alcoholic culinary mock-tails. It was fantastic! Because it is so unusual, Guy, while thoroughly enjoying his wine, was equally curious about my drinks! It was so interesting that it almost stole the spotlight from the meal. Just imagine what your guests will think!

– by Chef Eamon Lee, Corporate Executive Chef at Maines Paper & Food Service, Inc.