FEATURE: Find a soft spot for making money

By Emma Eversham

- Last updated on GMT

Softly does it: if a drink looks attractive it is likely to entice others to purchase in your pub (credit: Getty/ViewApart)
Softly does it: if a drink looks attractive it is likely to entice others to purchase in your pub (credit: Getty/ViewApart)

Related tags Soft drinks mixers Low to no Cocktails

If you run a pub off the beaten track, or at least one with limited passing trade and you have a regular supply of customers, then congratulations, you’ve created a destination pub.

It’s not been easy though, has it? Whether you’ve become renowned for your amazing food, welcoming ambience, or some other USP, you’ve had to work doubly hard for your patronage at a particularly challenging time for hospitality.

While you arguably have to work harder and shout louder than those running pubs in areas with higher footfall, there is an advantage to running a destination pub: When customers have made an effort to join you, they’re more likely to stay longer and potentially spend more.

So how do you get them to part with their cash? One, fairly simple, way to maximise this opportunity is to give some serious consideration to your soft drinks. This part of your offering might not seem as important as your food or your style of service but paying some attention to the soft drinks you stock and how you present them, could be a relatively easy win.

Supposing that a high percentage of your customers will be driving to your destination and therefore abstaining from alcohol, or limiting its consumption, you already have a captive market for non-alcoholic options.

Also, bear in mind, a growing number of people are moderating their drinking, adds Sarah Baldwin, CEO at Purity Soft Drinks, so it’s not just the drivers who will be seeking the softs.

Purity soft drinks collage Sarah Baldwin
Sarah Baldwin of Purity Soft Drinks

“Some 5.2m fewer UK adults consumed alcohol weekly in 2023 versus 2021,” she confirms, citing figures from KAM's Low+No 2023​ report, adding that a third of visits to the on-trade are now for alcohol-free occasions.

However, while these figures reveal an increasing thirst for non-alcoholic options in pubs, the same research highlights a quarter of consumers opt for tap water when not drinking, suggesting publicans have work to do to persuade punters to order something more exciting and ultimately boost their profits.

So how do you convince customers who don’t want alcohol to trade up from tap water? And when you’re a destination pub, how do you use soft drinks to drive visits?

Show soft drinks some love

John McDonagh is one publican who has already worked hard in this area at his Reigate, Surrey, pub, the Venture Inn, and has noted an uptick in soft drinks sales as a result.

The publican, whose pub is also known for screening sport and serving food, believes ‘a good no and low selection’ is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must have’ and recommends all pubs – whether destination or not, show their soft drinks some love.

McDonagh started by boosting the number of soft drinks (post-mixes of Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and lemonade are joined by all three J20 flavours, fruit juices, cordials) and non-alcoholic drinks on offer, then ensured customers knew what they could order.

The Venture Inn John McDonagh resized
John McDonagh of the Venture Inn in Surrey

As well as listing soft drinks on menus and on PoS, McDonagh has created a whole section of the back bar that is dedicated to non-alcoholic drinks – from non-alcoholic beers, ciders and spirits – to soft drinks, bottled water and mocktails.

“People are confident about ordering non-alcoholic drinks now, there’s less peer pressure to buy alcohol but if they can see the range on offer, they’ll be more confident in purchasing it,” he explains.

McDonagh notes sales of no and low alcohol products in his pub remained as high in February as they did in January when, typically, many people take a break from alcohol. He attributes this to changing attitudes towards alcohol-free and increasing visibility.

But it’s not just this that’s helping to boost sales of non-alcoholic and soft drinks sales at the Venture Inn. Mindful that his customers have visited his pub for an experience they won’t get at home, McDonagh ensures he and his team give as much care and attention to the serves of soft drinks as they would do to alcohol.

“It’s important our customers don’t feel alienated when they’re drinking a soft drink. It’s part of the experience of visiting our pub,” he adds.

Regular training sessions include a focus on presentation and serve, with staff encouraged to select appropriate glassware, before asking customers for their preference on serve.

venture collage
The Venture Inn's low and no range

“We ensure our glasses are clean – we change the salt in our dishwashers every week so they’re sparkling.

“If someone orders something simple like a lime and soda, we’ll put it in a nice crystal glass, make sure there’s ice and a lime wedge in it, and ask the customer how much soda they’d like.

“Like a meal, a soft drink has to look good and if it’s not done right, even before you taste it, you can feel let down.”

Operators shouldn’t underestimate the impact ‘the perfect serve’ has on a customer’s impression of a venue and their chances of returning, adds Pat Humphries, on-premise associate director at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners GB (CCEP).

“It gives customers the feeling that they’re getting something worth going out for, that they couldn’t get at home,” he says, pointing to the results of a One Pulse Survey of 514 consumers carried out in February, which showed 85% of respondents were more likely to order another drink and revisit a venue if their soft drink was served well.

Look good on the ’gram

Making a soft drink visually appealing can have another purpose other than pleasing the person who’s ordered it, suggests Reece Miller, head of operations at the Ferry House in Harty, Kent, where non-alcoholic cocktails like the Apple Refresher – a blend of apple juice, elderflower cordial and lime garnished with mint grown in the Ferry House’s kitchen garden – are popular with its guests.

“If you have something that looks amazing and is presented nicely then someone who has just turned up might say ‘oh, what’s that? I’ll have one of those’,” he says. “Something that looks good is a massive selling point.”

The Ferry House terrace overlooking the Swale estuary
The Ferry House terrace overlooking the Swale estuary

Aesthetics are especially important in the age of social media and by creating a drink that looks good on platforms like Instagram or TikTok, you’ll appeal to those viewing your business from afar, not just those who have made it into your pub or bar. This can have major appeal for destination pubs.

“Consumers are often more likely to visit a venue if they know they will also have an ‘Instagram-able’ moment,” adds Lee Hyde, senior beverage expert at Monin, who also advocates publicising no and low serves on social media as well as on menus.

Ensuring that visitors will have an ‘Instagram-able moment’ when they visit the Ferry House is important to Miller but it’s about more than providing fodder for social media.

The property is remote and only accessible via a four-mile track road. While walkers who are exploring the area might stop for a drink and the chance to admire the views of the nearby estuary, most of the time, its customers have gone out of their way to visit so it’s important it doesn’t disappoint in any way for this visit and future ones.

“People who come here are coming for a reason. They don’t want a standard drink; they want something new and a bit exciting. One that befits the location,” says Miller.

Tap into trends

Miller shares a similar view to McDonagh at the Venture Inn, that soft drinks should be shown the same respect as other elements within the business. More specifically at the Ferry House, the soft drinks are sourced from local suppliers, where possible. The menu includes options from Kentish suppliers Owlet Fruit Juices and Kingsdown.

“The local ethos is one that floods down into every part of the business,” Miller explains. “People come to us for locally-produced food and we try and make that fit with our soft drinks as well.”

Miller notes a revived interest in local and seasonal food and drink from customers, so ensures the soft drinks menu reflects this. Non-alcoholic cocktails, for example, change with the seasons and might use produce available in the Ferry House’s kitchen garden. The current apple and passionfruit-based non-alcoholic cocktails might make way for strawberry, rhubarb and mint in the summer months.

Double Dutch range

Raissa de Haas, co-founder of premium tonic and mixers brand, Double Dutch, advocates this approach.

“There’s a big opportunity with seasonal menus, and fresh ingredients,” she says. “While changing food menus every season is already prevalent in restaurants, wet-led venues should also look to evolve their drinks menu regularly to keep customers coming back for more.”

Mix and match

Integrating mixers into your soft drinks menu is a simple way to evolve it without heavy investment of time or money. Their flexibility as accompaniments to spirits – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic – as components in non-alcoholic cocktails or even served on their own with ice and garnishes – makes them a true workhorse behind the bar.

“Operators shouldn’t overlook their mixers offer when they’re thinking about soft drinks,” says Humphries at CCEP. “Tonics like Schweppes Indian Tonic and Schweppes Slimline Tonic remain important staples of many mixer ranges.

inn collection drink, Monin, Schweppes
The Inn Collection Group bartender, Monin drink and Schweppes beverage

“As we reach the warmer summer trading period, consumers often look for lighter, fruitier refreshments like spritzers and long mixed drinks, so Schweppes Sodas are an ideal addition to back bar chiller,” he adds, highlighting last year’s launch of two new flavours - Schweppes Soda Melon Watermelon and Schweppes Soda Peach Coconut – joining the original and Pink variants.

Dave Walker, head of beverage at The Inn Collection Group, likes mixers because of their practicality and ability to lend themselves to many occasions.

The group, which currently has 28 inns open across the UK (four are currently closed for refurbishment), trades across all day parts – opening from 7am for breakfast to 11pm for drinks.

While many of its customers are visiting for a meal and/or to stay, a large number visit for drinks and with group’s pubs situated in sought-after destinations like the Ullswater Inn in the Lake District, he recognises they need to deliver in all areas, including with soft drinks.

Inn Collection Group Ullswater Inn
The Inn Collection Group's Ullswater Inn in the Lake District

“We cater for a wide audience and our sites have varying amounts of bottle cooler space, so it’s practical to have mixers that can double-up,” he says. “We have bottled juices that can be served as a soft drink or used as a mixer. We have expanded the Fever-Tree range too so have lots of different flavours.”

Building excitement

Mixers are also used in non-alcoholic cocktails across The Inn Collection Group’s sites. Walker says such beverages, which include the Raspberry & Ginger Mule and a non-alcoholic Negroni, are a fairly recent addition to the drinks menu but one his team is “getting excited about”.

“A lot of my team see opportunity to get creative and excited about non-alcoholic drinks. It’s a world we’ve not played in much before and some of the options out there in non-alcoholic drinks are incredible.”

Inn Collection Group Kings Head Great Ayton
The Inn Collection Group's Kings Head in Great Ayton

This is a key point: Mixing up (pardon the pun) a soft drink offering can not only give your guests added impetus to visit, it can also be a useful way to engage team members.

Encouraging input and allowing bar staff to be creative will also make them proud and more enthusiastic to share their creations with your customers.

Be inclusive

While giving some thought and attention to your soft drinks offering can help make the business more profitable and aid employee engagement, the exercise also takes many operators back to the heart of why they run pubs.

For Walker and McDonagh, one of the motivators of boosting their soft drinks menus is to help make their pubs welcoming to everyone, drinkers and non-drinkers.

“It’s become more acceptable for people not to be drinking alcohol, but there is still a peer pressure aspect – people ask ‘oh, why are you not drinking?’, says McDonagh.

“By presenting something in the right glass and that looks good, non-drinkers don’t feel left out or stand out. It gives them more confidence in their drinking choices.”

The Ferry House Bartender
Behind the bar at the Ferry House

Walker agrees that it’s about ensuring everyone has a good time. He says: “Not that long ago the designated driver or the person in the party who isn’t drinking would have been limited to lime and soda or a Pepsi, or something full of sugar and not that interesting.

“Now with the evolution of alcohol-free, they can feel part of the experience, rather than being sat there with a sad-looking drink and not feeling part of the group.”

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