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The Return of the Soda Fountain?

The Return of the Soda Fountain?

Bowling Green's Campus Corners Restaurant boosts check averages with a couple of specialty "mocktail" drinks.

RASPBERRY CREAM LEMONADE is one of several value-added dessert drink recipe ideas described in a "how-to-do-it" brochure offered by Smucker's.

Where can college students too young for bars find a place "where everyone knows your name" to hang out?

Many schools have coffee bars and some have experimented with all-ages campus pubs, but there may be another possibility.

A recent report by the NPD Group noted that nationally, sales of milkshakes, malts and floats have been hot, up 11 percent in just the past year.

Can a concept based on that selection be successful?

It certainly has been at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, where a soda fountain concept called the Coop Fountain has been packing them in for decades. It shows how a concept relying on a limited menu centered around traditional shakes can become a campus gathering place.

Its offerings focus on six flavors of hand-made ice cream shakes—chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, cookies-and-cream, mint chocolate chip and coffee. No cones, no packed ice cream, no frozen yogurt—just shakes.

"Cookies-and-cream is definitely the favorite," says Brenda Schmit, manager of retail services for the Coop complex. More than 1,800 shakes are sold annually. In addition, the outlet serves a limited food menu of freshly made sandwiches, burgers and curly fries (a huge favorite), as well as fountain beverages.

At some other schools, similar soda fountain type operations are associated with academic agricultural programs. At Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, for example, the Cornell Dairy Bar is operated by the Dept. of Food Science and runs in tandem with the Dairy Store, where customers can get Cornell Dairy products in retail pack to take home.

Along with an array of soups, pizzas, sandwiches, wraps and sodas. the Dairy Bar serves shakes, floats, mocha and yogurt made with fresh milk from the nearby Cornell farms, along with its signature ice cream.

The place is definitely a gathering spot, especially around lunch and in mid-afternoon, says Food Science Dept. Sales Manager, Bonnie Hart. Vanilla, Bavarian Raspberry Fudge, Chocolate, Espresso Chunky Chip and Mint Chocolate Chip are the favorite flavors, she adds.

But you don't necessarily have to have a full fountain concept to take advantage of specialty drinks. At Bowling Green (OH) State University's Campus Corners Restaurant, a big seller is the Falcon Feast mocktail, made with orange yogurt in a hurricane glass, says Dining Services Director Gail Finan.

The Falcon Feast, along with another mocktail, the strawberry daquiri, "present really well and give our waitstaff the opportunity to upsell," she says. "Our average check in this restaurant is $18.00 and the cost of one of these drinks is $3.95. On average about one in five buy one of these drinks."

Those kinds of prices and margins are obtainable with all sorts of specialty drinks. Don't be afraid to steal ideas from bars and tavern mixed drink menus. Often, the drinks taste just as good without the liquor.

The keys to successful specialty drinks are presentation, flavor and, ideally, a hook or signature touch.

For example, try giving customers a choice of "flavor shots" they can add to basic sodas to customize them. Many colleges have already found that, when left to their own devices to assemble meals, students can come up with the most unusual combinations of ingredients. Why not adapt that talent to beverages?

The "shots" philosophy can also be extended to healthful additives. With exotic fruits like acai, pomegranate and guava increasingly registering with customers as beneficial, try offering "shots" of one or more to conventional beverages.

There are also aesthetics—dress up drinks with swirls and flourishes of garnish to increase eye appeal. Squeeze bottle toppings that are used to decorate plates can just as easily be used to add drama to drinks, while also adding an extra flavor to the mix.

Finally, don't forget about the container the drink sits in. Glasses in unusual shapes and designs can be part of a signature presentation (though if they are too cool looking, you may give yourself a shrinkage problem in the glassware department).

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