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Cocktail glass half empty: Drink sales stumble

We're bellying-up to the bar less — and bars and restaurants are feeling the pinch more.

Last year, consumers at bars and restaurants cut back on their orders of alcoholic beverages by 1.3%, and that trend continues into 2014, according to just-released study by Technomic, a food-service industry research firm.

Lane Oatey | Blue Jean Images | Getty Images

"Consumers pulled back on drink occasions at restaurants and bars," says David Henkes, vice president at Technomic.

The forecast looks even more bleak for 2014. The unusually harsh weather during the first two months of 2014 resulted in food service declines of 3% to 4% nationally and 7% to 8% in weather-affected markets such as the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, says Eric Schmidt, research director at Technomic.

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As a result, he says, drink sales projections for bars and restaurants remain "challenged" in 2014.

(Read more: Diageo lobbies change to Tennessee whiskey law)

This is a trend that's eating away at the $683 billion restaurant industry, which already is in the doldrums. Even as consumers are drinking less, several familiar chains have recently been concocting ways to nudge them to drink more.

Red Robin last week rolled out a Wine Shake nationwide. And Starbucks, the coffee house behemoth, said this week that it plans to expand its sales of craft beers and wines — now at just a couple dozen locations — to thousands of its U.S. restaurants over the next several years.

(Read more: Starbooze? Starbucks expands its menu)

While overall alcoholic beverage sales will likely suffer in 2014, Technomic projects that there will be continued growth in sales of the trendier categories including whiskey, craft beer and domestic table wines.

"These categories, driven by unique and often food-friendly flavor profiles are really relevant to today's consumer," says Schmidt.

—By Bruce Horovitz of USA TODAY.

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