By: James Walsh

 

Will Fast Food Find Salvation with Craft Beer?

Fast food giants look seriously haggard these days. Millennials have turned their noses up to the traditional in-and-out brands of their childhood in favor of fast casual restaurants that evince quality and not a nagging sense of guilt. Battles over wages, artificial ingredients, and sustainability have done damage to the rough reputation of fast food.

To stay competitive, brands like McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, and others are looking to revamp their images. Increasingly, beer is becoming part of that equation, but can craft beer become part of the fast food essence?

Can Fast Food & Brews Really Mix?

Beer and fast food have a complicated relationship. On one hand, beer goes well with paper bags filled with greasy and salty food. On the other hand, the whole appeal of fast food is that you can eat it on the go.

Americans consume 20% of all meals in the car, whether from a drive-thru or a convenience store. And while sitting in upholstered seats, scarfing down meals in between destinations, strict open container laws make it hard to sip a beer.

To overcome that obstacle, fast food joints are shifting from serving on-the-go lifestyles to the sit-down culture of fast casual restaurants. 

Making the Move to Fast Casual

Surprisingly, SONIC made the shift first. The restaurant chain was founded as a drive-in with customizable soft drinks as its centerpiece. If you needed to go to the bathroom, you had to buzz in and get a key. A frothy beer on the menu was inconceivable. But in 2011, they did the unthinkable and opened up SONIC Beach in Homestead, Florida.

The awning which once corralled cars, now was littered with black sofas, white plastic chairs, and mounted televisions behind an enclosed gate. Servers bladed out with burgers and beer on their trays. But the beer options are limited to Dos Equis, Blue Moon, Bud Light, and other macro brewed domestics. Expansion to craft is slow.

Other fast food joints have followed suit. Burger King created the BK Whopper Bar to mixed, results. And Taco Bell is making the move to create their own beer selling branch in Wicker Park (in Chicago) and San Francisco. The beer menu is a mystery, but that presents an interesting question:

Will Taco Bell partner with big brewing companies in a place where craft beer is king?

To be competitive in the Chicago or San Francisco markets, they’re going to have to do more than sell Michelob Ultra and Honeycrisp Apple Wheat. These are neighborhoods of craft brewpubs. The dominant beer is the IPA not the American Light Lager.

If they want people to come in and sit down, Taco Bell is going to need to do more than remove artificial colors and flavors and create an “authentic” feel with wooden stools, brick facades, and a hip feng shui. They’re going to need to offer beer that encourages people to sit down and drink. And if they can’t do that, their success adopting beer into their menus will be questionable at best.