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More cocktails get 'skinny;' how low can you go?

USA Today, January 19, 2011

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In a nation obsessed with calories, The Cheesecake Factory — best-known for its big portions — has a new, slimmed-down trick up its sleeve: Skinny Cocktails.

Today, the upscale casual dining chain unveils plans to roll out a "skinny" line of its five most popular cocktails later this month, made with about half the calories. Margaritas and mojitos that are usually 300 calories will be cut to about 150.

"We think it could create a whole new beverage category," says Mark Mears, Cheesecake's marketing chief.

The trend is compelling — particularly in January, when consumers are so diet-conscious. Over the past year, several smaller regional chains have added skinny cocktails to their beverage menus. But Cheesecake Factory is among the first national chains to hop onto the trend.

Considering the wild success of light beers, the potential for light cocktails is huge, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic, a restaurant research specialist. More bar and restaurant customers order light than full-calorie beers, Technomic reports.

"Consumers are trying to balance indulgence with healthier lifestyles," Tristano says. "It's very ironic that a chain that found its success through cheesecake is offering lower-calorie beverages."

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But Mears notes that this is not Cheesecake Factory's (CAKE) first move to cut calories. Two years ago, it rolled out a Small Plates and Snacks menu with less food and lower prices. The move has since been widely copied by a number of chains.

Cheesecake, which makes its cocktail drink mixes in house, will replace some sugar with Splenda and some natural sweeteners, Mears says. It will not reduce alcohol content or portion sizes.

While it's good to offer customers lower-calorie choices, says Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian and consultant, "People who believe fewer calories in their drinks will offset a high portion of calories in their meals are mistaken."

The rollout for the lower-calorie drinks, to be sold along with conventional drinks, will hit all 150 locations by March. The prices won't get skinnier, however: from about $7 to $11.

Others in the low-cal cocktail crowd:

  • Some of the 17 Ram Restaurant & Bakery locations in five states sell 80-calorie, Skinny Lime Bite Coolers made with Captain Morgan Lime Bite Rum and Diet Coke and served with a lime wedge.
  • Z'Tejas Southwestern Grill, an Austin chain, has a "Naturally Skinny" drink menu with six drinks under 250 calories. The drinks do not use artificial sweeteners, but fresh juice, spirits and natural garnishes, says Nick Rotas, regional manager.
  • RA Sushi Bar Restaurant locations in Pembroke Pines and Palm Gardens, Fla., are selling "skinny" cocktails under 200 calories.

Technomic's Tristano says skinny cocktails particularly appeal to women and to older consumers. But, he adds, "By the time you get to the third drink, you might not care how many calories are in it."