The Best Approach to Fast Casual Booze

“I’ll have another round” is not something you typically hear at Moe’s or Mi Piada. That’s because there is typically no one to say it to. When deciding to enjoy an adult beverage, fast casual restaurants are not the first places that come to mind… if for no other reason than they’re not where you want to hang out and knock back a few beers with friends. We get a lot of requests to inject alcohol service into fast casual concept development projects and we usually say, “Hmmm… kinda tough… the classic bar business depends on second and third rounds of drinks, a social atmosphere, and a dose of style to make it work.” This doesn’t mean, however, that fast casual concepts must forgo the opportunity to improve profitability through adding alcohol to their menu. They can. So instead we say, “If you want bar sales, add a bar.”

The structure of a fast casual restaurant makes it difficult to sell alcohol. Fast casual concepts are usually positioned to generate lunch and dinner sales with the same menu, so they are often located in busy strip malls or outparcels of strip malls for convenience and proximity to high traffic. Parking – despite the appearance of its abundance – is typically limited by the distance a guest is willing to walk from their parking space to the restaurant. When was the last time you accepted a 4th-row-over, 30th-space-back parking space at your grocery store or at Chipotle? I don’t know about you, but I’ll circle the lot looking for a closer spot even if I circle longer than it would have taken me to park and walk. In our observations of behavior (i.e. hours sitting in front of fast casual restaurants with a stop watch and clipboard) folks seem to want to park directly in front of the strip-mall business they are patronizing or are willing to walk a “reasonable” distance depending on how good the food is. I can’t define “reasonable” because our studies are not really scientific, but from what we have witnessed over the years, I’d say defections start outside of 50 yards.

Inside the business, patrons queue up, order their food, and may or may not receive their food on the spot. Chipotle is “on the spot” because patrons follow the assembly process, but food is always paid for before it is consumed. This is a problem for ordering, say, a beer, because the patrons have to get back in line to get their second. There is no “bar” per se because patrons find a seat only after paying with either their food in hand or with a numbered stanchion to tell the runner where to bring the food.

Some places offer limited table service where a polite person, who functions like a server / busser, will patrol the dining room looking for anyone who might want more food or drink. They may ask, “May I get you another beer?” This feels weird because the patron has already paid. The patron knows that the runner is working for tips, but it’s off-putting to have to pay again when the next round comes around. It reminds the patron that they’re spending money every time they reach for their wallet, which creates a buying experience similar to buying beer at the ballpark. I believe McDonald’s experimented with limited service in the 1990’s to drive add-on sales, but I’m not sure if it ever went beyond the test stores. Much was made of limited service, but I have yet to see any national concepts that have adopted it with both feet.

I believe that the best model for incorporating alcohol service into a fast casual concept comes by creating a small, full-service restaurant (with bar stools) within the fast casual restaurant. This is the perfect model for a several reasons:

  • A bartender can handle a higher volume of guests than a server because they are already surrounded by their guests… so they don’t have to travel to them.
  • Each patron is treated like an individual guest until the check is presented, making “separate checks” easier to figure out.
  • Fast casual guests wanting an adult beverage can choose to approach the bar like they would at any bar where they were not able to get a seat. This is a familiar activity that doesn’t seem weird – provided a space is made available for walk-up orders. This means more square footage (the typical 30’ x 90’ shotgun won’t cut it) and involves allocating a footprint for a large (18 to 30 seat) bar that serves as a “full service” option.
  • It is truly a food bar that offers guests the ability to sit and be served like a guest.
  • By having only bartenders and no servers, there is no tip distribution for support staff for managers to wrestle with (servers “tipping out” bussers or service bartenders, etc.). Bartenders keep all of the tips.
  • Since the focus is on food and value, it need never attempt to be a hip nightspot. Although who wouldn’t welcome it if it happens organically?
  • The bar also becomes a bit of a line-killer if empty seats at the bar can be spotted and grabbed by those standing in line: “Hey let’s sit at the bar, there are a couple of seats!” This way, you don’t have the problem of an empty bar at lunch.

A few good examples of this configuration are Farm Burger (a growing concept originating in Atlanta, GA), Hopdoddy (a growing concept originating in Austin, Texas), and Taqueria del Sol (out of Atlanta). If done right, a larger bar can take on the vibe of a real bar while being separate from the fast casual diners who may have children or who may view the bar vibe as intrusive. Hopdoddy does this by running the queue down the middle of the restaurant where the bar is on one side and general self-seating is on the other.

Fast casual is here to stay because of its speedy service and ability to deliver quality food at a reasonable price (no tip means an 18% to 20% discount on your meal!), but the full service bar is still the best way to deliver real alcohol sales. Guests just trade “no tipping” for a “full service experience” with their favorite casual food.

Ray Camillo – CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

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