Coffee Trends: Translating Specialty Coffee Trends to Beverage Menus in QSR Chains

Although statistics show Americans are drinking less coffee, consumers are, in fact, spending more money on specialty coffee today than ever before.1 Coffee drinkers are increasingly more willing to pay higher price points for high-quality, fair-trade coffee. In fact, Americans are projected to spend 13.6 billion dollars on coffee in 2016.1

Despite the growing demand for carefully crafted brews, consumers still expect convenience with their morning coffee, which gives quick-service chain operations an advantage. To provide customers with the specialty coffee drinks they crave, operators must keep up with current trends—driven by smaller independent cafes.

This article will dive deep into how QSR operators can translate specialty coffee trends into a high volume, fast-paced environment by selecting the right equipment, choosing ingredients wisely and creating efficient processes for consistency.

Some of the biggest specialty coffee house trends at the moment are: unique flavored coffee drinks, cold brew coffee and premium teas, lemonades and handcrafted sodas.

Flavored Coffee Drinks

First off, signature coffee beverages are nothing new; however, adventurous consumers are getting bolder with their flavor choices.

In fact, fifty seven percent of Americans consider themselves adventurous eaters.2 Due to this reality, operators must offer unique, interesting flavors to keep customers captivated and coming back for more. Flavors such as lavender, ginger and rosemary offer customers an unforgettable flavor experience. Great Lakes Coffee in Detroit serves a specialty lavender latte, and customers rave about this mellow, creamy drink with a subtle floral flavor surprises.3

“I’ve found consumers are increasingly drawn to quirky flavor combinations. At a recent tradeshow, we served an Iced Coconut Matcha Chai Tea Latte,” said Levi Andersen, beverage product specialty at Kerry. “The drink was thick, greenish, and had a deep matcha flavor that was balanced by spicy chai and sweet coconut. It was an instant hit with attendees because it satisfied the need for a fun beverage adventure.”

America’s adventurous taste buds are forcing cafes to look beyond traditional Italian influences for global inspiration. Italian café lattes and macchiatos are being upstaged by drinks such as the Australian flat white or the Latin American cortado. Some baristas are even being inspired by global flavors when crafting signature beverages. For example, Peet’s Coffee recently introduced a new signature beverage called Black Tie, inspired by Vietnamese and New Orleans traditions. Incorporating flavors from across the globe builds intrigue amongst customers in the QSR segment.

Cold Brew Coffee

While some consumers are experimenting with flavors, others are going back to the basics, with trends like cold brew iced coffee quickly sweeping the nation. Traditional iced coffee is made by brewing hot coffee at double-strength and then pouring over ice. Whereas, cold brew is a process for brewing iced coffee, where it is slow-steeped for 8-20 hours in room temperature water, deepening the rich coffee flavor and smoothing unwanted acidity and bitterness.4 This process creates a naturally smoother, sweeter coffee beverage.

Although the process of brewing cold brew coffee can be lengthy, many chains have found creative ways to serve this ice-cold beverage including: Caribou Coffee, Chick-fil-A, Peet’s Coffee & Tea and now, Starbucks.

“The point of cold brew is not just cold coffee, it is flavor-packed, adventurous coffee,” says Chef Jorge Cespedes of Food IQ, “A great example of this is Starbucks’ new campaign for cold brew coffee in small batches. They make sure people know that it’s small batched and prepared by a Barista—those are two strong key words that give mass production coffee more of a house-made feel.”

This past March, Starbucks first tested cold brew coffee in select cafes, and the new beverage went over so well that the company made it a permanent part of its menu in July 2015.5 Because of the time involved in brewing, cafes will only have a small batch available each day and once it’s gone, it’s gone. This limited-supply option is a great way for a chain to introduce cold brew, create demand and keep up with supply.

Another cold brew solution for chain operators is nitro: a cold brewed coffee that has been infused with nitrogen. Reminiscent of dark beer in texture and appearance, nitro can be served on tap, from a can or from a bottle. Serving nitro coffee right from the tap will attract customers and give your QSR a boost into the specialty coffee arena.

"More and more cafés are making space under their bar for a keg of cold brew, and a lot of the time they tap it with nitro,” says Cory Eldridge, editor for Fresh Cup Magazine. “Iced coffee has never been coffee's best drink since you're taking properly brewed coffee then dumping it over ice, which melts and waters down the coffee. Cold brew, though, tastes amazing, the tap on the bar looks killer, and if it’s charged with nitro the customer gets a foamy, bubbly drink that tastes so great."

Beyond Coffee- Teas, Lemonade and Handcrafted Sodas

Beyond coffee, it is important for QSRs to offer an array of specialty beverages that will please all customers, including: gourmet tea, lemonades and handcrafted sodas.

“We see more unique flavors in menu trends to incentivize a guest to upgrade to something more handcrafted,” says Chairil V. McClain, product manager, market development at Bunn-O-Matic Corporation. “Ingredients, presentation and even the theatrical action of making the drink give guests a reason to upgrade from water to handcrafted beverages.”

Specialty tea is quickly becoming the second fastest growing segment in the tea industry.6 In fact, cambric tea or tea lattes are starting to garner some attention and can be incredibly easy for QSR operators to menu. Simply put, cambric is tea brewed in hot milk and sweetened with sugar. Popular flavors include matcha, chai or earl grey tea—more commonly known as the London Fog. These seemingly upscale tea options can be menued in QSR operations by large-batch brewing with products such as Oregon Chai®.

According to Fast Casual, gourmet lemonade is the hottest nonalcoholic beverage of 2015, with the gourmet aspect coming from the addition of unexpected bursts of flavor.7 Busy QSR operations many not have time to create their own fresh-squeezed lemonade, but a reliable lemonade mix such as Big Train® Lemon Cooler Fruit Tea Smoothie Blast Mix or DaVinci Gourmet® Lemonade Concentrate Fruit Innovation Syrup can be the perfect solve.

Handcrafted sodas are also a trendy way to boost sales and profit margins in the QSR segment. Simply mix flavored syrups such as DaVinci Gourmet Fruit Innovations Syrups with soda water to create a specialty beverage that can be enjoyed by everyone. Operators can experiment with interesting DaVinci Gourmet flavors such as Watermelon, Tropical, Peach and Blackberry Blood Orange to create unique, refreshing beverages.

At the Specialty Coffee Association of America Show in April, Bunn launched new dispensed water system which provides both sparkling and still water—perfect for high-volume handcrafted sodas. Simply pair with any flavorings for a menu with endless possibilities.

“These destination beverages, made with the Bunn Refresh dispenser, can establish a specialty beverage clientele,” says Karalynn McDermott, senior vice president, market development for Bunn-O-Matic Corporation. “If the operation is busy in the morning, this helps them expand their business into other dayparts with sparkling water in the afternoon and evenings.”


The popularity of specialty coffee is quickly overflowing into the QSR segment. No longer can operators get by brewing large batches of house coffee. Prepare your operation by offering specialty beverages such as flavored coffee drinks, cold brew coffee and options for customers who prefer to drink tea, lemonade or sodas.

In the end, with the proper equipment, ingredients and positioning you can build a successful specialty coffee menu that will keep patrons coming back.

“It can be difficult for QSR’s to stay ahead of the fast-moving coffee industry,” says Brenda Renee Turner, marketing director of beverage brands at Kerry. “But with advances in technology and the availability of online resources, QSR’s have the opportunity to branch out into the specialty coffee world and satisfy their caffeine-savvy customers with quality beverages.”


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