Would You Like a Biggie Beer With Your Burger?

By Brett Elms | March 12, 2010 | 2 Comments |
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In March of 2009, the first Whopper Bar opened in Orlando's Universal Studios, making it Burger King's first domestic (US) venture to sell alcohol. Since then they have expanded to South Beach, Miami (Feb. 2010) with definite plans to open at the University of Memphis soon. Pending success, Burger King is also reportedly looking at other tourist destinations such as Times Square and Las Vegas. A local Burger King franchisee that I spoke with recently was very excited by the prospect of the Whopper Bar and rumored the possibility of opening in Manhattan in the near future.

Burger King is not alone in this, in July 2009 Starbucks started experimenting with serving beer and wine along side its signature offerings at a re-branded, concept store in Seattle called "15th Ave Coffee and Tea inspired by Starbucks." Major Cohen, senior project manager at Starbucks, divulged that the company plans to create two more similar stores in Seattle (at locations that are not currently Starbucks) and if the idea catches on, they will consider expanding to other cities. With the economy in its current state, perhaps now is the time for small scale innovation, for if it fails, the losses are limited. Detractors argue that fast food restaurants are a place for kids and alcohol should not be served. If the recent slew of bar room brawls at Chuck E Cheeses are any indication, perhaps they're right. 

A trip through Europe (or even watching a few movies) will show you the continental view towards children and alcohol. In Germany (where several fast food chains sell alcohol including the Munich Whopper Bar), a minor can consume undistilled, fermented beverages at the age of 14, while in the company of a parent. At 16, they can drink beer unsupervised and at 18, they can access liquor. During a recent trip to England, my mother was shocked to see so many children running around the pubs, while their parents grab a pint and a quick bite after work. So is it much of a stretch to serve alcohol at McDonald's? Not in Europe, but apparently in the United States.

Due to a mix of American conservatism and probably a slew of legal issues, American quick service chains have been sluggish to embrace beer with their expeditious food. A new Subway set to open this spring in the Grand Junction Regional Airport (Colorado) will be serving beer and wine—but the airport, not the restaurant, will hold the liquor license. Subway spokesman Kevin Kane said that stores with street access do not serve alcohol but there are exceptions for locations in stadiums and airports. Outside of the dominant industry players, smaller groups of "fast casual restaurants" such as ChipotleShake Shack and Goodburger have served alcohol for years without any major hiccups. As of March 2010, Shake Shack has three Manhattan locations with plans for six more (three in NYC, three elsewhere), Goodburger has 5 and Chipotle…well there are a lot of Chipotles.

While still a niche market, differences are emerging as to the type of beverages served by each company. The Whopper Bar is starting out with big beer brands from Budweiser and Miller and will consider other brews down the road. Meanwhile a recent blog post from 15th Ave. in Seattle announces new beers including well-loved, but less mainstream, Dead Guy Ale from the Rogue Brewery along with Lagunitas IPA and others.

The idea of serving beer and / or wine at fast food joints is clearly still in experimental stages here in the US but if it does well, one can expect it to stick around and expand. There will always be opponents arguing the family-values card and hopefully the issue can be resolved in the free market. If there are enough parents who feel their children are endangered by a fast food restaurant serving alcohol, they can take their business elsewhere. Perhaps a company like Wendy's will skew itself as more family-oriented while the others fight over beer sales. Personally, if I was a parent, I'd be more concerned over the caloric and fat content in the food than the beverage in everyone else's cups.

2 Comments · Would You Like a Biggie Beer With Your Burger?

  • Interesting article and is subject of some pretty cool debate: I think that there will end up being an issue of server age. Many of these fast food joints employ high school kids. In my opinion i dont see a large market for this...fast food is cheap and quick. Alcohol is expensive and enjoyed sedentary. Nobody will be allowed to take their beer to go!

  • That's true, as far as I know (in Pennsylvania, which is fairly conservative regarding booze) you must be 18 to serve in alcohol. That would definitely wipe out a huge swath of the workforce. But I think atleast for now these concept store are in high-traffic and highly populated areas that have a larger age demographic to hire from. And honestly in the economy people are taking any job they can get, it might not be a huge issue.

    As for the expense, the reports I saw showed only a few dollars more per meal for beer rather than soda. But yes, the beer must be enjoyed in the restaurant. No drive-thru! Honestly though I remember in PA there was a drive-thru beer distributor and here in New York you can buy beer in gas stations. Point is, people will drink where and when they want.

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