Thursday, January 28, 2010

Party on, Garth

Not since the medical-marijuana movement have toga wearers heard news this good: Slowly yet surely, the fast food industry is making it possible to catch a buzz with your burger or burrito.

Those of you just deplaning from the space shuttle might’ve missed the news that Burger King will serve beer in its new Whopper Bar concept, an upscale riff on the chain’s usual fast-food emporiums. The kegger will start at the branch under development in South Beach, Miami’s own little stretch of Gomorrah, and spread to outlets like the one planned for New York’s Times Square, according to press reports.

The hubbub suggested that the fast-food world has never tried such a thing before. Yet a number of other chains had beaten BK to the bottle opener. Prominent among them is Starbucks, which is selling beer and wine at its new “neighborhood” stores, the individually named cafes that call to mind eccentrics in berets reading poetry.

Even more ambitious is the bartending of Baja Fresh, the fast-casual burrito chain that’s now offering margaritas in a few outlets. The stores also offer bottled beers, as competitors like Chipotle have done since their start.

The slow seep of alcohol into fast food has been happening for years. Three decades ago, a point of distinction for Taco Cabana was selling margaritas through the drive-thru, and the regional chain still sells a frozen version by the glass and in pitchers. If memory serves me correctly, McDonald’s even tried beer at an outlet in the Miami airport back in the ‘80s.

But the trend is particularly intriguing now because it shifts fast-feeders closer to casual dining, a stretch of quicksand during much of the Great Recession. Why wade into that marshland when the casual chains were scrambling not long ago to recast themselves as fast-food places that happened to use silverware? They certainly narrowed the gap between their prices and what you’d be charged at a grab-and-go burger shop. Ditto for the menu items they featured.

So why inch onto ground the traditional occupants are forsaking to some degree? Maybe the seam between the sectors is the place to be. That, after all, is the turf targeted by fast-casual chains.

Yet they’ve not fared as well during the downturn as their conventional quick-serve predecessors. No, it seems more a matter of pushing out the edges of a brand’s market, regardless of what sector serves as its base. Even more so than a year ago, chains of all stripes are trying to hold their traditional turf while pushing out in slight increments into new territory.

The question is, does that sharpen their appeal or just blur their image?

It’s enough to make you crave a drink.

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