There is a scene in “Sideways,” the 2004 film about an oenophile and his friend road tripping through California’s wine country, where the protagonist, Miles, visits a fast-food restaurant. Having recently suffered humiliations including the rejection of his novel and advances toward the woman he loves, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, unceremoniously drinks his prized 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from a plastic foam cup over a burger and onion rings.
Had he chosen the establishment more carefully, Miles could have saved his precious bottle for the end of the movie—when his love is indeed requited—and still got a quality buzz. A number of quick-serves, the latest of which is Vancouver, Washington-based Burgerville, have taken a page out of fine dining’s playbook and put wine on the menu.
A study conducted last spring by Adult Beverage Insights Group, a branch of market research firm Technomic, found 40 quick-service restaurants that serve wine, out of 66 total that sold at least some type of alcohol. Louie Cano, senior broker and consultant for Liquor License Specialists, which helps clients buy and sell liquor licenses nationwide, could not provide specific numbers but says he has noticed an increase in limited-service establishments serving alcohol, including wine.
It’s easy to see why: Adult per capita and overall table wine consumption in the U.S. reached a record high in 2008, according to a consumer tracking study conducted by the Wine Market Council (WMC). Last year also marked the 15th straight year of gains in total wine sales. Because of recent growth in the market, the WMC expects sales to hold steady through the recession, and Millennials’ emerging affinity for wine bodes well for future consumption.
Randy Caparoso, a restaurant wine consultant and freelance wine journalist, says as much as 12 to 15 percent of a quick serves’ customer base might order wine with their meals, and bottles can be marked up 50 percent or more.
“That’s nothing to sneeze at; that’s a profit center,” he says.
Serving wine can also be a competitive advantage. It can serve as a point of differentiation from other quick-serves and fuel trade-down from full service.
“We’re trying to grab that customer who is now thinking twice about going to a [full-service] restaurant and dumping $70 to $80 for a meal and wine,” says Derek Cowling, co-owner of O’Brothers, a quick-service burger concept he founded with brother Craig in San Diego earlier this year. O’Brothers has an upscale interior, an organic menu, and wines by the glass from around $7.50 to $8.75. Cowling hopes the $17 to $18 average price for a burger, salad, and glass of wine will bring in customers from the surrounding shopping center and three performing arts theaters within a mile’s walk. Happy hour specials, such as $5 glasses of wine and $5 plates of sliders and fries, beginning at 3:30 p.m. are meant to help drive traffic during the slow mid-afternoon daypart.
In addition to creating profit in its own right, wine offers other, less-direct advantages, for restaurants.
“It eliminates the veto factor,” says Jeff Weinstein, CEO of The Counter, a 20-unit burger concept that has offered beer and wine since it opened in 2003. “You’re not going to not come to The Counter because we don’t serve beer and wine.”
Wine can also elevate an establishment’s image by boosting its value perception.
“All of a sudden, you’re more of a nice restaurant,” says Vaughan Lazar, president and co-founder of 20-unit organic pizza chain Pizza Fusion. “You may not want to take a date to a typical quick-service restaurant, but you might take them to Pizza Fusion because it has wine.”
In white-tablecloth restaurants, sommeliers carefully choose wines to enhance the cuisine, but pairings aren’t just for fancy fare. Wine expert Natalie MacLean says wine can bring out the flavor of a burger just as it can for a steak.