KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Darren Cusick drinks iced tea all day, every day.
"Whoever has it, that's where I go," said Cusick, of East Lynne, Mo., while filling a large cup of the brew at a McDonald's in Overland Park, Kan., last week.
Iced tea, an American invention more than 100 years old, is new again.
Look around. Everyone from the brawny Cusick in his sleeveless T-shirt and blue jeans to calorie counters to teenagers is swilling the beverage. And not just for lunch and dinner - iced tea is in demand at breakfast and midafternoon snacks too.
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That broader market has led to a 12 percent increase in iced-tea sales at fast-food and casual-dining operations since 2001, comparable to increases in coffee sales, according to The NPD Group, a consumer research group based in Port Washington, N.Y.
With that demand, iced tea - both brewed and instant - also is being transformed with trendy, unusual offerings.
"We love to try new things, particularly new things we already know," said Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group.
Today's iced tea may come spiked with pomegranate, blackberry sage, passion fruit or other flavors. Even the long-established Lipton brand has come up with recipes for exotic iced-tea drinks such as double fruity raspberry slush, lemon drop mar-tea-ni with vodka and Grand Marnier, and sangria tea sparkler with grape and orange juice.
Restaurants of all kinds are upgrading to freshly brewed or flavored teas.
McDonald's has long sold unsweetened tea, but it is now introducing sweet tea, a Southern specialty. Some of the fast-food chain's outlets also are selling bottled green tea from Lipton.
McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants feature the Arnold Palmer - a mix of freshly brewed iced tea and hand-squeezed lemonade.
Customers of The Drop bar and bistro in Kansas City, ask for its mango shaken iced tea with ginger infusion.
"It's a buck-fifty for us as opposed to water with lemon," said Eddie Crane, a partner in The Drop.
Anticipating that a tea buzz would hit Kansas City, Hal Brody four years ago opened Tea Drops. The shop specializes in tea - from hot to cold to a variety of bubble teas with big, chewy tapioca "bubbles."
"We sell quite a bit of tea, but iced tea is leading the pack," Brody said. "There are so many different types, tastes and opportunities as opposed to the old Lipton brand."
Longtime tea lovers are hoping the consumer interest leads to better-tasting tea in a variety of outlets, the way Starbucks brought coffee to a new level.
Donna Ziegenhorn swears that iced tea was a prenatal drink for her husband, Dallas Ziegenhorn, who admits imbibing only for some six decades.
"It's a step between water and Coke; it's not too bland, but it's not harmful," Dallas Ziegenhorn said as they washed down their lunch with iced tea at The Classic Cup on Friday.
While the Ziegenhorns limit their iced-tea habit to dinner and the occasional lunch out, tea sales, as well as coffee and soda pop, are especially increasing at breakfast as more Americans start their day with caffeine, according to NPD.
"Iced tea has fared well with little marketing attention from restaurant operators," said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst with the NPD Group.
"What might the potential be if efforts were made to tout the perceived health benefits - anti-oxidant/cancer fighter, its interesting flavor potential - blueberry, mango, etc., and its perceived calming properties for today's stressed-out consumers, while still being cool and refreshing?"