CLEVELAND — Quick-service restaurants (QSRs) that offer smoothies are evolving their menus to include smoothies that are less sweet and more focused on specific health-related purposes through interested plant-based ingredients, herbs and spices.
"In lieu of sweetness, people are becoming open to new and different combinations of flavors in their smoothies, for example, basil and strawberries or mango and chipotle," said Matt Dugan, corporate executive chef at Vitamix, manufacturer of blenders for the restaurant and hospitality industry. "The American palette, especially among the younger audiences, is become more enterprising, curious, and open to new, unfamiliar flavors."
This evolution comes as the U.S. smoothie market is growing. In 2020, Dallas-based smoothie shop Smoothie King opened a record 263 new stores globally to reach more than 1,300 stores worldwide and closed out the second half of the year with a 12.2 percent-increase in comparable sales. Smoothie franchises such as Tropical Smoothie Café also reported double-digit growth last year.
Many of today's smoothie customers have specific health goals and expect smoothies to help them in their journeys.
"People are not just seeking out healthy foods — they are looking for a combination of ingredients that will serve a tangible and specific purpose," said Rocky Gettys, vice president of product development for Smoothie King. "That places a particular onus on made-to-order smoothie chains to deliver a product that connects the dots."
Menu concepts based on purpose can include smoothies designed for pre- or post-workout, immune health, joint health, energy, weight loss, protein and muscle building and more.
The move toward purposeful smoothies is expected to continue, according to Vitamix and Smoothie King, which predicted that new areas of consumer interest may include brain health and skin health as well as seasonally relevant areas of interest, such as cold and flu in the winter and energy and hydration in the summer.
As the smoothie market adjusts to consumers' concerns about excessive sugar, sweet ingredients such as sorbet, honey, purees and syrups are likely to play a less prominent role in QSR recipes while kale, spinach, carrots and other vegetables will continue to gain ground.
"The blending of tropical fruits with greens is a real winner in today's smoothie market," Gettys noted. "You have to remember that while a smoothie must be healthy, it also needs to taste good. So, mixing the antioxidant richness of vegetables with the allure of tropical flavors is the sweet spot for smoothies right now."
Dugan added, "We are seeing a fast-growing interest in anything plant-based. It's not just vegans and vegetarians who are interested in plant-based nutrition. There is a broad-based awareness that vegetables, berries, seeds and whole grains play a very important role in our diet."
The use of herbs and spices to help manage sugar content in smoothies is on the rise. Blending ingredients such as ginger, cinnamon or cocoa adds healthful ingredients as well as flavor, lessening the need to add sugar for a great taste.
Despite these emerging trends, customization is key for smoothie menus.
"No smoothie operator wants to play nutrition police and force consumers into a rigid set of guidelines. We're here to give people flexibility to choose what is right for them," Gettys said. "That's why you are going to see more customizable options on smoothie menus, even as the menu overall becomes less sweet and more healthy."
Market research shows that Generation Z is the generation most interested in smoothies, followed closely by millennials. These are also the generations most interested in choice and customization. For QSRs, the challenge is to introduce smoothie customization without slowing down the ordering process or introducing the risk of someone ordering a combination of ingredients that do not go well together.
"The best model for customization is one that holds some ingredients stable while inviting choice on some others," Gettys explained. "For example, customers can substitute one fruit or vegetable for another; choose among nut butters; or choose between milk and other non-dairy options, like oat milk and almond milk. We are always open to substitutions at Smoothie King, but we also want to steer our customers toward what tastes good."