Creative non-alcoholic drinks offer boozeless alternatives to meet growing customer demand while maximizing profits for operators and staff alike.

By Tracy Morin

Have you heard of Dry January, Sober October, One Year No Beer or similar efforts that challenge participants to forgo alcohol? Maybe you’ve seen the stats showing Gen Z is less interested in drinking than previous generations. Or perhaps your business doesn’t have a full liquor license but still wants to offer fun specialty beverages with impressive profit margins.

Regardless of the reasons, it’s likely the perfect time to rethink your non-alcoholic drinks. “Non-alc is the fastest growing category in beverage, and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down anytime soon,” notes Marcus Sakey, co-founder of Chicago-based Ritual Zero Proof. “In 2023, we saw the largest year-over-year growth for the category, according to the 2023 NielsenIQ Report, which indicated a $510 million increase in non-alcoholic sales. And the non-alcoholic share of the total alcohol market is expected to grow to nearly 4% by 2027, according to market researcher IWSR, and 10% within a decade.” Let Sakey do the math for you: Non-alc is on its way to becoming a roughly $1.2-billion category by 2034.

Getty Images/Lilechka75
Embracing Boozeless Solutions

Not surprisingly, pizzerias are jumping on the non-alcoholic bandwagon. UNO Restaurants, owner of UNO Pizzeria & Grill, headquartered in Boston, launched a non-alcoholic drink menu (using Ritual Zero Proof spirits) at all of its 78 locations last January. “We worked with a team at one of our locations in Florida to create the non-alcoholic versions of four of our most popular cocktails: a Margarita, Hurricane, Old-Fashioned and Peach Mule,” says Edgar Cruz, regional beverage director. “When we conducted blind taste tests among our team, many of them couldn’t tell the difference. That’s when we knew we got it right.”

For UNO CEO Erik Frederick, the rise of—and demand for—non-alcoholic alternatives made adding these drinks a no-brainer. “This was something that our customers were asking for and is an investment in a lifestyle trend that we can all agree is here to stay,” he explains. “What has really been encouraging is that sales have maintained consistent levels even after Dry January, showing that the trend is more than just a special-period phenomenon. We anticipate it will continue to grow.”

That’ll be an impressive feat, since, in 2023, Ritual’s total on-premise sales shot up by 791% from 2022. “There’s a big cultural shift taking place,” Sakey notes. “People are more mindful and health-conscious than ever. More interestingly, this growing mindfulness connects with every demographic. Gen Z may be leading the ‘sober curious’ movement, but every generation’s drinking habits are changing, all the way to Baby Boomers.”

“This was something that our customers were asking for and is an investment in a lifestyle trend that we can all agree is here to stay.”

Eric Frederick, UNO Pizzeria & Grill

And, Sakey adds, as the world’s relationship with alcohol is changing, there is also massive innovation happening on the manufacturer side. “Every day, there’s a new product launch,” he says. “There are mushroom elixirs, hydrating powders, CBD RTDs—the list goes on and on.”

At Atlanta-based Mellow Mushroom, with 160-plus locations across 16 states, mocktails are a key part of the beverage program, taken just as seriously as their alcoholic counterparts. They’re hand-crafted, made using fresh ingredients—and versatile, as they’re offered paired with spirits for customers who choose to drink. “Like with all of our hand-crafted beverages, we get behind the bar and work with various juices and flavors,” says Anne Mejia, VP of brand development. “When we find the ones we like and that will taste good paired with pizza, we add them to our menu test calendar and determine how well they sell once in the hands of Mellow Mushroom operators. We serve a lot of families, so non-alcoholic beverages are a critical component of our beverage program. We have two menu sections devoted to non-alcoholic beverages: one for traditional beverages, including fountain beverages and iced teas, and the other for mocktails.”

Profits and Possibilities

Because UNO and Mellow Mushroom have locations across the country—in different markets, with different types of consumers—it’s crucial to serve a wide variety of tastes. That means non-alcoholic drinks can probably work for a smaller independent pizzeria’s customer base, too. “Overall, this is something that caters to anyone looking for alternatives,” Cruz says. “It fits well with our brand, because we create dining experiences rooted in preference.”

Photo courtesy Uno Restaurants

Offering non-alcoholic beverages, beyond the typical water and soda, also creates a better in-house experience. “It’s all about optionality, inclusivity and experience,” Sakey says. “A guest seeking a non-alcoholic drink can now order a satisfying $12 cocktail instead of a soda and lime. Just like every grocery has oat milk and every restaurant has vegetarian options, every menu needs non-alc alternatives.”

To market these drinks, UNO created new menus and tabletop displays to promote the menu on-premise and trained all of its staff on the new offerings. “We also serve the non-alcoholic drinks in a beautiful custom blue glass adorned with the Ritual logo—so a neighbor at the next table might ask what they’re drinking when they see it go by!” Cruz says. “Additionally, we regularly feature the drinks on our social media platforms, both organically and with paid campaigns.”

Frederick adds that specialty drinks are not only more profitable for the business, but for staff members. “Our bartenders can earn more in tips for mixing up a zero-proof cocktail instead of refilling a water all night,” he says. “By having choices available, it makes going to the local UNO appealing for everyone in the party, regardless of lifestyle, and that’s more business in the door.”

In fact, many people buying non-alcoholic beverages are not necessarily non-drinkers—they’re ideal for designated drivers, pregnant women, athletes, weeknight celebrations and more. “It’s not all-or-nothing; consumers can have a full-proof drink one night, and a zero-proof drink the next,” Sakey says. “In fact, 94% of those purchasing non-alcoholic spirits are also purchasing alcoholic products, according to Nielsen.”

Meanwhile, Mellow Mushroom has seen mocktails double in sales over the last three years, and their popularity is continuing to grow. “Non-alcoholic beverages, mocktails, fountain beverages and iced teas have some of the best margins on our menu—including mocktails that come complete with custom garnishes,” Mejia explains. “With mocktails, we sometimes see that the guest who ordered a cocktail will trade to a mocktail partially through their meal.

“Fountain beverages are easy to pour, but not necessarily memorable,” she adds. “A craft-made mocktail is part of the overall Mellow Mushroom dining experience and something that sets us apart from other restaurants.” Mejia recommends that operators start with one or two mocktails, executed flawlessly. If you find success, keep mocktails in your innovation pipeline.

At UNO, the hurricane (called the Windless Hurricane) and the margarita (called the Nada Margarita) have been the top sellers so far. Before creating your alcohol-free menu, Frederick suggests looking at the data and talking with consumers to understand their preferences. After all, drinking—like sharing a pizza—is a social activity. “It’s about making a customer’s dining experience more enjoyable and special,” he says. “Sure, some guests may still opt for water, tea or soda, but there is a growing curiosity around moderation, and our hope is to show our customers that it can taste just as great as any alcoholic drink. It often isn’t about going cold turkey; what we’ve learned is that it’s really about choice. Ultimately, opening up your beverage menu to more choices will pay dividends for your business.”   

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s associate editor.

Food & Ingredients