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September 13, 2009

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Burgers with the lot, and wine, now on the menu

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," said Jeff Harvey, CEO and president of Burgerville, a 39-unit chain which recently added wine and beer to one of its restaurants in Vancouver, Washington.

The trend comes at a time when "quick serve" or "quick casual" restaurants - with counter service but aspiring 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," said 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 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.

For Burgerville, wine and beer was a logical next step in their program of using local produce 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 said.

Sales are up at the Vancouver restaurant selling beer and wine, but, said 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, 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," said 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, Shack Meister Ale, created by Brooklyn Brewery, 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 Bordeaux-style Opus One for US$99, not a bad price since a full bottle of the '05 retails for up to US$200.

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," said operations manager Staci Raymond.


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