Is Soda's Popularity Fizzling out Around the County?
While still a mega-industry, soda drinking is declining at area restaurants as customers move away from sugary soft drinks.
Kombucha and small organic brands like Blue Sky are on the rise.
Photo by Alyssa price
Restaurants are increasingly offering alternative beverages that both taste good and are lower in sugar, as many patrons — especially Millennials and Gen-Xers — reject conventional soda.
“As a restaurant owner, it’s one of your nightmares when customers only order water,” says Nick Triscari, owner of New Rochelle’s The Wooden Spoon, who has noticed a move away from soda by customers of all ages. “Parents are more conscious of the sugar content in soft drinks and steer their children away from ordering soda.” Triscari admits he used to ask children if they wanted a soda with their meal, and “I did get some looks from their parents,” he says.
The Wooden Spoon’s customers are leaning toward the restaurant’s fresh-squeezed lemonade (which, Triscari notes, is high in sugar) and unsweetened iced tea. “We usually have a special lemonade on the menu and offer flavored teas,” says Triscari, adding that even customers who do order soda have stopped taking advantage of the restaurant’s free refills.
Photo by leonela Almonte
Tony Fortunate, partner at Briarcliff Manor’s 105-Ten, Croton-on-Hudson’s 105-Twenty, and Pleasantville’s Mission Taqueria, has definitely seen a shift in beverage preferences. “Years ago, it was an 80/20 ratio of customers ordering sodas versus water,” he says. “Now, that ratio has flipped.” As with many other trends, Millennials are leading the charge in moving away from sugary drinks. “Millennials drink a lot more water, seltzer, juice, and mocktails,” says Fortunate. It’s become customary for busboys at his reestaurants to fill customers’ water glasses and then leave a bottle of water on the table.
The menus at the three restaurants reflect the changing times, offering such drinks as a virgin mojito and the At First Blush, with club soda, mint, lime, and simple syrup. Fortunate says especially during the summer customers are looking for those nonalcoholic “fun” drinks, and children want something refreshing.
Courtesy of Pik Nik
At barbecue joint Pik Nik in Tarrytown, the beverage menu boasts plenty of variety, as well. Co-owner Alberta Jarane says she carries “unusual and interesting” sodas, such as Mexican Coke and Brooklyn Crafted Ginger Beer. There are also homemade drinks, such as hibiscus tea and strawberry lemonade. “We see that Millennials are more interested and attuned to all the options out there,” says Jarane, adding, “Awareness of the sugar content in what used to be the dominant beverages is a good thing. The onus is on us to create healthier and more flavorful options.”
Healthier options are also on the minds of patrons at another Tarrytown restaurant, Grass Roots Kitchen, part of ERL Hospitality. David Starkey, ERL’s president, hasn’t noticed any change in soda consumption at the company’s other two restaurants, Tomatillo in Dobbs Ferry and Tarrytown’s Sweet Grass Grill. But, at the more health-forward Grass Roots Kitchen, “there’s more demand for unusual beverages,” he says, including organic and caffeine-free sodas from Blue Sky Beverage Company and kombucha. “And the market for sparkling tea is exploding,” Starkey adds.
Courtesy of spindrift
Joe DeCicco, partner and a buyer for DeCicco & Sons, with seven locations in Westchester, is also seeing growth in sparkling teas. “People still want that little bit of effervescence without the sugar,” he says, noting that brands such as Pellegrino and Perrier have added flavors to their lines, and that there’s a demand for newer brands, such as Spindrift and LaCroix. Mini-cans of soda have grown in popularity, too. “Companies realize consumers no longer want to drink a 12-ounce can of soda. It’s seen as more of a treat,” he explains.
Cutting back on sugary beverages and developing that “treat mentality” is something the American Heart Association has been working toward, says Robin Vitale, vice president, Health Strategies New York City. The organization is reaching out to chain restaurants to offer water or milk on children’s menus, as opposed to soda and juice. It’s a movement the association hopes will also grow in Westchester. “All of our policies in this area are about empowering parents to make a healthier decision,” explains Vitale.
“Carbonated sodas are definitely on the decline for youngsters,” says Vincent Corso, one of the principals and GM of operations for Westchester Burger Company. While the restaurant’s three county locations do offer sodas as one of the options, he’s seen an increase in requests for pink lemonade and apple juice, as well as growth in unsweetened iced teas among all age groups.
Even diners, the quintessential ode to Americans’ eating habits, have witnessed a decline in soda’s popularity. “Sales have gone down dramatically, almost 40 percent in the past few years,” says Bill Livanos, a partner and owner of City Limits in White Plains. Anna Aspras, who’s a server at her family’s diner, Seven Brothers in Yonkers, has seen similar change. “Parents are more hesitant about giving their children soda; Millennials are looking for bubbly drinks without sugar but with some sweetness; and older adults are switching to unsweetened iced teas,” she says. Overall, she notes, “Customers are still looking for tasty beverages.”
Abbe Wichman is a Katonah-based freelance writer who covers food and drink. While she used to be a Tab drinker, she’s embraced the myriad other fizzy options now found at restaurants and in supermarkets.