Can wine work on quick-service menus? More restaurants are finding that, in fact, it can.
There is a scene in “Sideways,” the 2004 film about an oenophile and his friend road tripping through California’s wine country, where the protagonist, Miles, visits a fast-food restaurant. Having recently suffered humiliations including the rejection of his novel and advances toward the woman he loves, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, unceremoniously drinks his prized 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from a plastic foam cup over a burger and onion rings.
Had he chosen the establishment more carefully, Miles could have saved his precious bottle for the end of the movie—when his love is indeed requited—and still got a quality buzz. A number of quick-serves, the latest of which is Vancouver, Washington-based Burgerville, have taken a page out of fine dining’s playbook and put wine on the menu.
A study conducted last spring by Adult Beverage Insights Group, a branch of market research firm Technomic, found 40 quick-service restaurants that serve wine, out of 66 total that sold at least some type of alcohol. Louie Cano, senior broker and consultant for Liquor License Specialists, which helps clients buy and sell liquor licenses nationwide, could not provide specific numbers but says he has noticed an increase in limited-service establishments serving alcohol, including wine.
It’s easy to see why: Adult per capita and overall table wine consumption in the U.S. reached a record high in 2008, according to a consumer tracking study conducted by the Wine Market Council (WMC). Last year also marked the 15th straight year of gains in total wine sales. Because of recent growth in the market, the WMC expects sales to hold steady through the recession, and Millennials’ emerging affinity for wine bodes well for future consumption.
Randy Caparoso, a restaurant wine consultant and freelance wine journalist, says as much as 12 to 15 percent of a quick serves’ customer base might order wine with their meals, and bottles can be marked up 50 percent or more.
“That’s nothing to sneeze at; that’s a profit center,” he says.
Serving wine can also be a competitive advantage. It can serve as a point of differentiation from other quick-serves and fuel trade-down from full service.
“We’re trying to grab that customer who is now thinking twice about going to a [full-service] restaurant and dumping $70 to $80 for a meal and wine,” says Derek Cowling, co-owner of O’Brothers, a quick-service burger concept he founded with brother Craig in San Diego earlier this year. O’Brothers has an upscale interior, an organic menu, and wines by the glass from around $7.50 to $8.75. Cowling hopes the $17 to $18 average price for a burger, salad, and glass of wine will bring in customers from the surrounding shopping center and three performing arts theaters within a mile’s walk. Happy hour specials, such as $5 glasses of wine and $5 plates of sliders and fries, beginning at 3:30 p.m. are meant to help drive traffic during the slow mid-afternoon daypart.
In addition to creating profit in its own right, wine offers other, less-direct advantages, for restaurants.
“It eliminates the veto factor,” says Jeff Weinstein, CEO of The Counter, a 20-unit burger concept that has offered beer and wine since it opened in 2003. “You’re not going to not come to The Counter because we don’t serve beer and wine.”
Wine can also elevate an establishment’s image by boosting its value perception.
“All of a sudden, you’re more of a nice restaurant,” says Vaughan Lazar, president and co-founder of 20-unit organic pizza chain Pizza Fusion. “You may not want to take a date to a typical quick-service restaurant, but you might take them to Pizza Fusion because it has wine.”
In white-tablecloth restaurants, sommeliers carefully choose wines to enhance the cuisine, but pairings aren’t just for fancy fare. Wine expert Natalie MacLean says wine can bring out the flavor of a burger just as it can for a steak.
“There is no better way to make a meal like that even more delicious than with a glass of wine,” she says. “The pairings are the same as they would be with fancy food.”
Jeff Harvey, president and CEO of 39-unit Burgerville, says the decision to experiment with beer and wine in its Salmon Creek test location in Vancouver, Washington, is less about adding profits from the drinks and more about enhancing the chain’s food. Coming on the heels of an expanded seasonal gourmet-offerings menu, wine service at the Salmon Creek store is all about the pairings. The chain worked with a sommelier to choose alcohol offerings that complement its food and fit with its local, sustainable ethos. The staff was trained on pairings, and cards offer simple descriptions of the wines and suggest menu matches.
After a three- to six-month testing period, which began in May, beer and wine service could be expanded to other Burgerville locations, but Harvey is quick to stress that alcohol is not likely to become available systemwide.
“It just won’t work in some restaurants,” he says.
Likewise, wine service won’t work for every chain, says Janeen Olsen, professor of wine marketing at Sonoma State University.
“I think you really have to know who your customer is and whether you have a match with who is drinking wine,” she says.
Despite the rising rate of per capita wine consumption, it’s still more popular on the East and West coasts and in urban areas, Olsen says, and wine drinkers tend to have higher incomes and better education than the general population. Research also shows that the drink is associated with relaxation and socialization, so a quick-serve with high customer turnover might not be a great fit for wine service.
While Weinstein says alcohol accounts for about 10 percent of sales at The Counter and Cowling hopes O’Brothers will eventually see alcohol bring in 25 to 30 percent of sales, Lazar says wine adds only about 4 to 8 percent of sales at Pizza Fusion. Most quick-serves, says Technomic’s David Henkes, should realistically expect only 1 to 3 percent of sales to come from alcohol, and beer is still more popular than wine.
Moreover, offering alcohol of any kind creates a number of hassles and headaches, not the least of which is the initial step of acquiring the proper license. The process and fees vary greatly from state to state and even city to city, but a restaurant seeking to serve wine typically doesn’t have to obtain a full liquor license. In most cases, a limited beer and wine license will do.
To obtain one, the business has to file an application with the state, pay a fee that can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and then wait—usually about three months. The restaurant will also have to comply with an inspection, zoning laws, and background checks. Neighbors, too, will have to be notified and offered the opportunity to comment. As Burgerville found out, some of them might not be happy. The state liquor control board received two letters from people opposing the Salmon Creek location’s liquor license, and Harvey says the chain, too, heard some negative feedback.
“The majority response was excitement, but there are those who haven’t been as warm to the idea,” he says.
There’s no guarantee a license will be awarded. In some states, such as New Jersey, where the full-version is required, liquor licenses are notoriously difficult and expensive to come by. A $400,000 price tag prohibited the Pizza Fusion location in Ridgewood, New Jersey, from getting one, and the restaurant remains the only one in the chain that doesn’t serve alcohol.
“It was a difficult pill to swallow at first,” Lazar says. “In a restaurant of that size, that would have been around 8 percent of sales we could have added to their top line.”
Even if a restaurant does get a license, there are liquor laws to comply with and liability to consider. Those that serve alcohol of any kind are likely to see higher insurance premiums. On-premise alcohol can also affect hiring, as servers must be at least 18 years of age and in some cases obtain special handling licenses.
“The legalities of serving alcohol vary from location to location, so you really have to understand what the laws are,” Olsen says. “As is true for any type of food establishment, quick-service restaurant employees must have proper training concerning alcohol, as well as adequate supervision.”
Theft can be an issue, too.
“You trust that you have a certain type of staff, but we know in this business that’s not always the case,” Lazar says.
To keep employees from helping themselves to the wine, restaurants rely on security cameras, diligent inventory checks, locked storage, eagle-eyed management, and zero-tolerance policies regarding theft.
Still, some quick-serves are willing to accept the risks.
“No matter what you’re doing, there are always liability issues,” says Staci Raymond, operations manager for Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, a three-unit, drive-in-style concept that offers 11 wines by the glass and 15 varieties by the bottle. “We believe it’s worth the trouble.”
The Perfect Match
Here are some suggested pairings from the Wine & Food Matcher widget on expert Natalie MacLean’s Web site.