TAMPA — When Jimmy Buffett sings about having a “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” he’s not planning to wash it down with a soft drink.
No, the Florida icon describing the ultimate burger calls for a cold draft beer, and it appears more and more fast-casual and even fast-food restaurants are picking up on the classic combo of burgers-’n’-beer.
And tacos-’n’-beer. And pizza-’n’-beer.
“It has been perceived, and I think correctly, that there is a natural affinity between a burger and a beer,” said Richard Blau, head of statewide law firm GrayRobinson’s alcohol industry team. The pairing is no longer the exclusive domain of the classic bar and grill.
Blau’s firm has been active as restaurants such as Burger King establish a Whopper Bar on Miami’s South Beach that serves beer with its upgraded signature sandwiches.
Starbucks is also in on the act, with beer and wine at its growing “Starbucks Evenings” stores in Orlando, Seattle, and what is expected to be thousands of other locales.
Taco Bell has opened Cantina outlets in Chicago and San Francisco to cater to those who think nothing goes better with a burrito than a beer. Some Sbarro pizza parlors offer beer and/or wine.
Even Sonic Drive-In, where a carhop will bring you a hot dog and tots, is trying out the concept in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and two other franchises.
None of the fast-food joints contacted by the Tribune would discuss specific plans for the Tampa Bay market. But there’s no doubt it’s on the minds of those in charge of strategy — and the bottom line.
“These new urban restaurants are a critical part of our growth strategy in markets where people experience our brand differently,” said Brian Niccol, chief executive of Taco Bell Corp. in a statement announcing the Chicago and San Francisco openings. “Today’s consumers are living in more urban settings and our new restaurants cater to their lifestyle in adapting our traditional restaurant concept to fit their modern needs.”
Blau said there are two drivers behind the trend. “One is focused on the business itself, and one is focused on the customer the business serves,” he said.
In other words, high margins from alcohol sales can significantly lift a restaurant’s bottom line. And one thing that the fast-casual category of restaurant is recognizing, you don’t want to have a void in your menu when it comes to what people want.
“We don’t want a family or a group of people to decide not to come to our restaurant because we don’t offer what they want, whether it’s on the menu or it’s cocktails,” said Mike Remes, corporate chef for Burger 21 restaurants.
Burger 21s have served beer and wine since the chain began in 2010. Now, restaurants in Viera near Melbourne and one in Ocala will experiment with in-house craft cocktails. Seasonal fruits and vegetables and what Remes calls “fun and whimsical” shake-cocktails or “shaketails” will soon be on the menu.
“This is going to be our chance to dive a little bit more into the beverage segment and capitalize on some of the beverage trends that have developed in 2015 and 2016,” he said.
Other fast-casual chains with a presence in the Tampa Bay area also provide beer, wine, margaritas and other frozen drinks at many outlets.
Selling alcohol is “very different than selling food,” Tampa lawyer Blau cautions, hence his firm’s busy role in the field. Booze sales are regulated on the federal, state, and local levels. There are potential civil liabilities and the risk of serving to minors.
“It’s definitely something that as operators, we really need to focus on,” said Remes of Burger 21. “It starts in-house, locking down a solid training program.”
At Sonic’s four beer-and-wine drive-ins, “alcoholic beverages are served only on the patio or inside the dining room and enjoyed on-site,” said Christi Woodworth, vice president of public relations. “There is little difference, from that aspect, from any other restaurant that serves alcohol.”
There’s a key reason alcohol is showing up on fast-food and fast-casual menus: It makes good business sense.
The millennial generation, now the largest segment of the U.S. work force, grew up on fast food. That group can now drink lawfully, stay up later at night and might not want to have to cover a more expansive tab at a full-service restaurant.
“You have an evolving industry where business people are trying to deliver on the desires that consumers have,” said Blau.