Menu Innovations | May 2013 | By Amy Sung

Buying into Booze

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Fast casual brands attract customers with alcoholic beverage programs
Freebirds has each found success in offering alcoholic beverages on the menu. Freebirds World Burrito
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The same strategy is applied to Uncle Maddio’s beer options.

“We are always looking for ways to customize our beer selections to our specific markets,” Wahl says. “We have brought in selections from several local breweries, as well. Wheat beers are popular, and we offer several other styles—lagers, amber ales, and IPAs. We try to vary the craft-brew selection as best we can to match our customers’ preferences.”

Blaze Pizza locations also offer craft beers, plus some standards like Heineken and Amstel Light, along with red and white wines.

“It seems like a natural complement to our menu and really helps us drive our dinner business,” Wetzel says. “As we expand our number of locations, we’re letting each store pick local beers and wines that are most popular to that specific neighborhood.”

In line with its fast-casual Mexican counterpart, Chipotle, Freebirds World Burrito is testing margaritas in its Kansas and Missouri locations, making a batch from scratch every morning using fresh-squeezed lime and lemon juice, simple syrup, tequila, and triple sec. The chain also sells draft, craft, and bottled beer, with selections tailored by market. Shiner Bock is popular in Texas restaurants, whereas Sierra Nevada or Lagunitas IPA is preferred in California, says Steve Byrne, vice president of culinary for Tavistock Restaurants, Freebirds’ parent company.

Fresh To Order is also staying true to its core concept with its fresh-made cocktails.

“Using craft and seasonal liquors, wine, and beers that change regularly based on the seasons and the brewers, vineyards, and distillers we work with will allow us to always have something fresh, modern, and fun for our guests,” Panos says. “Guests get to see a bartender build [the cocktail] in a [mason] jar. It’s transparent; all the fresh fruit, herbs, and seasonings are in the jar. It feels, looks, and tastes more real.” Jesse Gideon, corporate chef for Fresh To Order, adds that instead of offering common liquor brands, Fresh To Order sought out carefully crafted, artisanal liquors to pair with the brand’s fine dining–style menu.

Datassential’s Webster says that in addition to an increased interest in beverages that pair well with menu items, consumers are exploring more cocktails, mixologists, and fresh ingredients used in those types of creations.

“There’s been significant growth in beverages from the country of the cuisine being served,” Webster says. “It rounds out the experience of being at that operator. Experiences are, in particular, extremely important to Millennials, who are more likely to visit fast-casual operators than other demographics. There are popular alcoholic beverages that could be served regardless of cuisine, but part of the mixologist movement and cocktail renaissance is to make sure the alcoholic beverages complement the food.”

The challenges

Despite the benefits alcohol programs can offer fast casuals, Henkes warns that booze isn’t necessarily the right solution for every operator.

“When you look at the upside for alcohol, and all the hoops that you have to jump through in terms of regulations, getting a license, all the additional insurance costs, and everything like that, if you’re not generating a big number from alcohol, you really need to think twice about doing it,” he says. “Not that it’s not possible, but it’s certainly not a slam dunk from any perspective.”

Several challenges are inherent with a fast-casual alcohol program, including regulations. Because of the patchwork of local and state regulations and how hard it can be to obtain licenses, most fast casuals that Henkes has seen roll out alcohol programs have done so selectively based on where the unit is, the demographics, and if the restaurant can get a license.

“It’s important that you make sure the CUP (conditional use permit from the city) on the location allows the sales of beer and wine,” says Blaze Pizza’s Wetzel. “If not, you need to go through the process to get it added. Employees also need to be well trained in handling this.”

Freebirds is also putting up with the challenge of where to merchandise the beer. Because fast-casual dining rooms and kitchens are not typically designed with alcohol distribution in mind, there is no obvious place to stock the booze, Byrne says.

“We are testing a beer trough along the queue line in one of our Texas locations,” he says. “Another challenge is that much of our business happens during lunch, and people are typically not drinking at lunch. It does help us capture more dinner business, though.”

Henkes says fast casuals also struggle with the customer-service aspects of alcohol programs.

“The challenge for a lot of fast casuals is that they’re not set up as bars, and integrating an alcohol system into their existing services system, just strictly counter service, can be challenging,” he says. “I think one of the big things, from a service perspective, [is] fast casuals generally hire a lot of underage people, so depending on state laws, service can be a challenge in terms of just being able to make sure that your staff is legally able to sell alcohol.”

Packaging and quantity are also challenges to consider. The easiest thing for a fast casual to offer is a single-serve product, like a bottle of beer or miniature-sized wine bottle, Henkes says. “And liquor, even at the Chipotles that I’ve seen that have the margaritas, it’s premade, it’s already in a cup, so they’re not mixing it on property,” he says.