SAN FRANCISCO – Fast-food customers are hearing something new as they order burgers, pizza and all things fried: Would you like wine with that?
No one's selling cases of McMerlot just yet, but a number of so-called "quick-serve" restaurants are adding beer and wine to the menu, partly to boost sales but also with an eye to amping up the ambiance.
"We simply wanted to create a different kind of dining experience," says Jeff Harvey, CEO and president of Burgerville, a 39-unit chain in the Northwest which recently added wine and beer to one of its restaurants in Vancouver, Wash.
The trend comes at a time when "quick serve" or "quick casual" restaurants — a restaurant that has counter service but aspires to offer something more than typical takeout — are looking to attract cash-strapped diners searching for cheaper options, but not willing to give up the amenities of full-service restaurants.
"If you're more of an upscale fast food restaurant and you're trying to trade upon that image as more of a premium product, wine really fits in with that image," says David Henkes, vice president of the Chicago-based market research firm Technomic.
Among the quick serve restaurants selling alcohol is Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill, which sells beer and margaritas.
Meanwhile, Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. announced in July that it will change the name of one of its existing stores in Seattle — to 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea — and begin serving wine and beer as well as coffee and tea.
For Burgerville, wine and beer was a logical next step in their program of using local ingredients to create monthly dishes based on seasonal ingredients.
There was some resistance from customers who didn't want the 48-year-old chain to change. But "for the most part everybody's been very favorable toward this. The guests have been surprised, but very pleased with the idea," Harvey says.
Sales are up at the Vancouver restaurant selling beer and wine, but says Harvey, "That wasn't our motivation. My measure of success is really more the dialogue that's happening at the tables."
At the three-location Shake Shack in New York City (part of the Danny Meyer empire that also includes Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern), owners decided to sell beer and wine when the first restaurant opened at Madison Square Park five years ago.
"Shake Shack is about coming together, hanging out in the modern version of that old roadside burger stand," says managing partner Randy Garutti. "We felt that beer and wine was a crucial part of who we are. It was just a part of keeping people at the Shack to hang out, not one of those fast-food joints that has uncomfortable chairs so you leave."
The Shack even has its own beer, created with a local brewery, Shack Meister Ale, as well as wines including Shack Chard and Shack Shiraz.
And if you want something a bit more upscale with that burger, you can have a half bottle of Opus One for $99, not a bad price since a full bottle of the '05 retails for up to $200.
Like Burgerville, Shake Shack's plans to serve beer and wine drew concerns it would create problems, particularly since the restaurant is in a park.
"Of course, the opposite is true," Garutti says. "People hung out longer and made the park the safest it's been."
Serving beer and wine isn't a step to take lightly. Restaurants need to obtain a license, which can be a complex and expensive process, and the servers must be 21 or older and trained to serve alcohol.
At Burgerville, for instance, officials are considering offering alcohol at other locations, though they already know there are some where it won't work, partly due to the layout of the restaurants. Their system involves keeping wine and beer sales separate from food.
A pioneer in the burgers-n-Burgundy movement is Taylor's Automatic Refresher, a three-location chain in Northern California.
The quick-serve restaurant, founded by winemaker Joel Gott and his brother, Duncan, 10 years ago, is known as a place where you can get a hearty burger, onion rings and a half bottle of such Napa Valley aristocrats as Shafer Vineyards.
"It's just a mellow place to go," says operations manager Staci Raymond.
On a recent afternoon, Sean Brown, CEO of the Internet advertising site BuzzHub, was enjoying a glass of red at the Taylor's in San Francisco's restored Ferry Building while discussing business with a friend. He liked the combination.
"It's a comfortable way of enjoying an adult beverage with an adult conversation," he says.
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