Fast Booze Nation

From Sonic to Chipotle to Starbucks, fast food restaurants are more frequently adding alcoholic beverages to their menus. Will it catch on? Sarah Baird examines the new fast booze landscape.

cocktails beer wine fast food

Liquor and fast food have always been curious bedfellows: the kind of odd couple that usually joins forces during times of intense emotional duress or after a blitzkrieg night of drunkenness. Who among us hasn’t found themselves with one hand wrapped around a Big Mac and the other holding a glass of cheap riesling after a particularly terrible breakup? Or been driven by friends to get a Crunch Wrap Supreme at 3 a.m. in an attempt to stave off a wicked hangover?

Let them cast the first stone.

In a particularly depressing moment from the classic 2004 film Sideways, we find our leading man pouring his prized 1961 Château Cheval Blanc into a fast food restaurant’s Styrofoam cup, pairing one of the finest wines of the 20th century with a greasy hamburger. The film reinforces what we’ve all come to learn: alcohol and fast food typically come together when we hit rock bottom.

But what if the combination isn’t all about crying into your French fries?

International iterations of American fast food chains have sold alcohol for years—with McDonald’s in Munich, Germany pouring their first beer in 1971—and a number of chains, like Carl’s Jr. and Pizza Hut, have been serving cold brews stateside for decades without much fanfare. But it’s only since the Great Recession that national fast food chains, from Chipotle to Sonic, have attempted to make a more visible case for sipping a glass of moscato while munching on a chili cheese dog.

Burger King caused national stir in 2010 when they introduced their BK Whopper Bars: sleek, spaceship-shaped kiosks targeting a twentysomething demographic with a smorgasbord of “trendy” toppings for their signature Whopper. True to their “bar” rebrand, some locations also added beer to the menu, focusing on the holy trinity of Budweiser, Bud Light and Miller Lite.

However, the legal hoops—location specific alcohol regulations and licensing issues required for serving beer at a fast food joint—proved more difficult than anticipated for the majority of their stores. This battle played out publicly at the Whopper Bar location in Times Square, where the promise of beer sales quickly fizzled after the city denied the restaurant’s liquor license. (The location has since shuttered.) Currently, only two Whopper Bars—one in Las Vegas and one in South Beach—sell beer, and Burger King says the chain has no current plans for further liquor expansion.

Fast Food CEOs seem to believe that Americans are increasingly interested in having a dining experience—not just a meal on the run—when they eat out, and this often includes the addition of alcohol. “We served beer and margaritas going back to our very first restaurant 21 years ago. The idea was that, for some people, a beer or margarita with Mexican food completes the experience,” said Chris Arnold, the Communications Director for Chipotle.

In spite of mixed results, a number of additional fast food chains followed Burger King’s lead, including White Castle and Sonic Drive-In. White Castle—a 93-year-old fast food chain known for their tiny, square sliders—served wine at their Lafayette, Indiana location for a short window beginning in 2011, but no longer serves alcohol at any of their outposts. The addition of alcohol attracted curious (or incredulous) Midwestern thrill seekers for time, but one can assume the novelty of drinking chardonnay from a plastic flute quickly wore off. A similar issue has plagued Sonic. In 2011 the chain’s outpost in Homestead, Florida began serving beer and wine to diners eating on the restaurant’s patio, boasting an array of draft beer options from Yuengling to Blue Moon. Since the addition of alcohol to the menu, sales have been steady, but not overwhelming.

“It would be easier if we were able to set up a bar outside so people could see what we had to offer,” said one Homestead Sonic employee.

The problem may be that the majority of fast food restaurants adding alcohol to the menu have made no aesthetic shifts to their restaurants, which means that diners are still eating off of plastic trays and ordering from a menu where many of the meals have a corresponding number. Companies that have made an effort to craft the right kind of ambience for serving liquor—creating a space that’s less about a hurried, on-the-go meal and more about an opportunity to savor the experience—seem to have benefitted the most.

Starbucks has proven to be one of the most successful cases of a national chain adding alcohol to the menu, developing an entire after-dark program that focuses on wine and cheese sales instead of latte and biscotti. “Starbucks Evenings” was piloted in Seattle beginning in October 2010, and has since expanded to over 40 stores in five target markets—Seattle, Portland, Southern California, Atlanta and Chicago—with plans to reach over a thousand US locations over the next several years.

According to Starbucks, the program was designed “…in response to customers who shared that they were looking for a comfortable place to gather in the evening for a glass of wine, without having to go to a loud bar or make a reservation at a restaurant.” Wine availability varies according to geographic area, with Chicago Starbucks serving up Chianti and two red blends finding their way onto the menu in Atlanta.

Starbucks seems to be a natural fit for the sale of alcohol because it has inherent third-placeness: a café where girlfriends dawdle over coffee drinks and freelancers set up makeshift offices for hours on end. Unlike fast food joints—which focus on turnover and moving customers in and out as quickly as possible—Starbucks has an ambience that encourages lingering and sipping a glass of pinot grigio, right down to the Nora Jones playlist.

The sweet spot between Sonic and Starbucks for fast food and alcohol might be at the Mexican food offshoots of national conglomerates. Chipotle (once owned by McDonald’s), Qdoba (owned by Jack in the Box), and Moe’s Southwest Grill (owned by the same organization as Cinnabon and Schlotzsky’s) all successfully serve a variety of beer at locations across the country. These Mexican fast food restaurants put more effort into creating the kind of themed environment and cuisine-specific experience that encourages diners to sit and stay a while instead of dashing in and out. These restaurants straddle the line between the convenience of more traditional fast food and the feel of a sit down Mexican restaurant (where fish bowl-sized drinks are often par for the course).

Fast Food CEOs seem to believe that Americans are increasingly interested in having a dining experience—not just a meal on the run—when they eat out, and this often includes the addition of alcohol. “We served beer and margaritas going back to our very first restaurant 21 years ago. The idea was that, for some people, a beer or margarita with Mexican food completes the experience,” said Chris Arnold, the Communications Director for Chipotle. “Alcohol isn’t a huge seller for us—about 2 percent of sales—but the idea is to offer it for people for whom it adds something to the dining experience.”

During my visit to the Chipotle in Mobile, Alabama—which shares a co-branded building with a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Red Wing shoe store—small children ate miniature burritos while parents sipped Coronas and snacked on guacamole. Similar situations played out during my visits to the Moe’s in Mobile and a Qdoba in Richmond, Kentucky. Mexican beers—from Dos Equis to Modelo—fit comfortably alongside foil wrapped chicken tacos and assembly line fajitas.

Chipotle manages to get a leg up on its competition by serving two different types of margaritas, including a $7.20 Patron version made with fresh juices and agave nectar. While it still was a little odd to see a fast food employee break out a jigger to measure tequila, the drink itself was solid (if a touch sweet) and a popular item for the Mobile location.

Legal and aesthetic grumblings aside, it might just be cocktails like Chipotle’s margarita that prove to be the perfect addition for fast food menus. Where beer and wine stumble, mixed drinks could pick up the slack, with concoctions created to specifically match a restaurant’s food offerings. It’s this aggressive level of pro-active branding that would help shift alcohol and fast food’s current reputation as a culinary Bonnie and Clyde, coming to rob us of our last shred of dignity when we’re down and out.

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