Skinny cocktails are a hot trend for dieting diners – and sales data indicate the trend is going strong. Restaurants face two main challenges when designing a skinny cocktail menu, but crafty innovators and problem solvers in the industry have engineered workarounds.
Beefing Up Menus with Slimmed Down Drinks
Skinny cocktails are low calorie versions of alcoholic favorites. Typically, skinny cocktails weigh in at less than 200 calories. That’s a huge improvement over their high-sugar, heavyweight counterparts that can do some serious damage to someone watching their caloric intake. An average piña colada comes in at around 800 calories or more depending on the size and the ingredients used.
The skinny cocktail mania began in 2009 with the Skinnygirl brand of low calorie, ready to serve at home margaritas.
The Cheesecake Factory was one of the first major national chains to unveil its successful “SkinnyLicious” Skinny Cocktails menu in 2011. Applebee’s Skinny Bee Cocktails followed closely behind. Chili’s, T.G.I. Friday’s, Red Lobster and other national casual dining chains have added skinny or slender drinks to their menus.
Skinny cocktails have been popping up on menus more and more in the past few years. The phrase “skinny” appeared on menus 44% more in the first quarter of 2013 than in the previous year. The trend has been gaining steam in conjunction with other restaurant trends like nutritional disclosures, freshness and wanting to eat “healthful” food. While skinny cocktails still only account for 1% of total cocktail sales, year-to-year comparison sales have doubled in the past three quarters.
The Challenge of Waist vs. Taste
The first major challenge for restaurateurs and menu engineers is how to balance taste and nutrition information. Consumers have expectations about the calorie counts but also expect their drinks to taste delicious.
The second challenge is in differentiation. Nobody wants a skinny menu consisting entirely of a “diet Cuba Libre.” Restaurants also don’t want to have the same skinny drink as the place next door.
Innovations and Solutions
In response to the first challenge, smart drink developers have learned to use hard liquor like vodka and rum. Vodka contains a modest 100 calories per serving compared to wine, beer, and sugary liqueurs that can be almost double that amount in a single serving size. Another way to lower calories in a drink is to simply decrease the alcohol content and include lower calorie juices and ingredients to make up the rest of the bulk.
In response to the second challenge, restaurants have been duking it out to come up with the most exotic, interesting and authentic flavors for their skinny cocktails. Skinny mojitos are popular and taste like the Cuban favorite, but only contain half the calories of their full-sugared brothers. Restaurants are experimenting with flavors to expand their offerings, but also to convey their brand personality and differentiate themselves from other restaurants with skinny cocktails as the competition heats up.
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