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Beer and wine on traditional, family-oriented quick-serve menus? What, sir, have you been drinking? Admittedly, some of the issues standing between quick serves and beer and wine sales are daunting. There are liability concerns—particularly when one considers that many restaurant employees aren’t themselves old enough to legally serve or enjoy an alcoholic beverage. Then there are the sometimes-exorbitant costs and headaches associated with obtaining liquor licenses. Storage, theft, and inventory control—the list of considerations is long and each could be deal-breakers for some chains.
However, for those that find ways to navigate through the maze of possible objections, there also may be significant upsides. In July, the market research firm Technomic projected restaurant alcohol sales to increase 1.1 percent in 2010—a significant about-face from the 2.5 percent decline the company predicted about six months earlier.
Chipotle and other fast-casual chains have offered beer and even margaritas for some time. Boutique quick serves like Shake Shack and Gott’s Roadside offer adult beverages as part of their overall effort to court diners interested in a complete meal experience. And, last year, the Associated Press reported that Burgerville was adding wine to at least one unit’s offerings to test the waters. So there is ample precedent for serving alcohol in quick-serve settings, even if we don’t yet have the option of enjoying malt and hops with our burger and fries at most U.S. fast food outlets.
So, what are we talking about here? Bud Light and MGD at Wendy’s? Dos Equis at Del Taco? Is that as far as we can take this idea? Hardly. The Brewers Association, a trade group representing independent beer producers, reports that the craft brewing industry grew 7.2 percent by volume in 2009. The year before, more than 1,500 American craft brewers produced about 8.5 million barrels of suds. Consumers’ appetite for novel, unusual, artisan brews is growing, and that means quick-serve chains could pair particular menu items with a range of different beers designed to optimize their products’ flavor profiles. The possibilities are many and interesting.
OK, so let’s suppose a pizza and pasta chain that served only soda and water were to offer wine. How many varieties should it have on the menu? And won’t providing a decent selection be expensive? While no one would expect a quick-serve outfit to offer a 70-page wine list boasting the likes of Château Margaux or Opus One, some enterprising high-end restaurateurs, including the Lark Creek Restaurant Group in the San Francisco Bay Area, now have wines on tap, served from a barrel or keg, at very reasonable prices. These are premium-quality wines, not rotgut. And if the tap formula ultimately proves as popular nationwide as it has at the group’s popular Lark Creek Tavern in Marin County and its One Market in downtown San Francisco, the idea of seeing wines on tap in a fast food environment may not seem so outlandish.
Don’t you think that wine might just be a bit too froufrou for most quick-serve customers? Americans are about the only people on Earth who regard wine as an esoteric indulgence. But our attitudes are changing. Most consumers around the world, especially in Europe, simply see wine for what it is: a delicious, basic accompaniment to great food.
We in the U.S. tend to over-think wine; the rest of the world simply drinks it.
Now that some of the cultural and packaging norms that contributed to wine’s haughty reputation are fading away, there are several varieties of high-quality boxed wines that can hold their own with the snobs’ favorites. Many outstanding wineries are forsaking corks in favor of screw tops. The whole price/quality proposition is being debunked as inexpensive wines from Argentina, Chile, and Australia take their place alongside some of the best that France, Italy, and California have to offer. In a nutshell, wine is going more mainstream each year, and quick serves can capitalize on the phenomenon.
Many fast food consumers love soda because it’s sweet, a little decadent, and good with food. How can an alcoholic beverage serve the same function? Here’s where quick serves might really clean up. It isn’t just beer and wine that could round out the beverage menu. There are also the pop-like progeny: sangrias, spritzers, wine coolers, Kir, shandys (beer mixed with lemonade or lemon-lime soda), and even micheladas (traditional Mexican beverages consisting of beer, lime juice, spices, extracts, and other flavorings). Budweiser and Miller-Coors have already jumped into the michelada game with their own variants: Bud Light Lime and Budweiser Chelada—the latter containing Clamato juice—are aimed squarely at the Latino market, as is Miller Chill, Miller-Coors’ lime offering.
May I buy you a drink? Absolutely. Toss in a cheeseburger and we’ll call it a date.