Burgers and Beers

2 07 2011

First it was Starbucks. And now it’s Burger King and Sonic. Before long, we won’t have to go far to find a brewski. Because suddenly everyone’s selling them.

Of course, lingering puritanical thinking will have many people up in arms over this, but folks in other parts of the world have been able to get a Big Mac and a pint of the brewer’s art for years. Sometimes it takes a while for things to make it across the ponds.

Part of me wonders what took so long for fast food giants to finally figure this out over here, for it has been a missed opportunity. But another part of me wonders if it’s a reflexive response to market conditions. Which is another way of saying that these guys are trying to find a market advantage.

Of course, the very idea of fast food outlets selling beer to a car culture instantly raises red flags. It is quite the norm that up to 50% of a fast food restaurant’s sales are through a window. That alone means they cannot be serving beer to go, not matter what the customer entreats. “Yeah, I’d like a Double Whopper with cheese, fries, and a 44oz. Budweiser.” Sure. In your dreams.

In other words, plan on dining in.

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the fast food burger joints and Starbucks’s foray into beer and wine. The former are food outlets that sell beverages as a secondary item, whereas the latter is exclusively a beverage shop. I have voiced my displeasure before about SBUX selling booze, and many of my students lambasted me (including one who…um…works for SBUX). My naysaying, though, has more to do with beer and wine detracting from coffee sales than it does with propriety, though.

But as for fast-food joints, what difference does it make if you wash down your burger with a Coke or a Bud?

Alcoholic beverages, in spite of a plethora of state and local licensing issues, still promise a healthy profit margin for their vendors. They are also a great way to significantly pad the bill. And while the beer margin may not be quite as high as it is for soft drinks (up to 90%), they do help set BK and Sonic apart from McDonald’s and other fast food eateries. All it takes is one person in the group wanting some suds to go with their burger, and the group may very well find itself eating BK Triple Stackers or SuperSonic Bacon Cheeseburgers instead of Quarter Pounders.

Watch for this: Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point notion is about to come into play. Once enough fast food outlets start selling beer, the rest will all be forced to follow, lest omission become a greater sin than co-mission. This will certainly challenge some chains, especially Chick-Fil-A (which has also taken great amounts of heat lately for not exactly being LGBT-friendly). While it is every business’ right to follow their own conscience, the market is a funny place. It doesn’t take much for an idea to tip and become the next expected norm. To not follow the latest whimsy is done at their own peril.

All Jimmy Buffett jokes aside (“It’s 5:00 somewhere, right?), this latest development in the burger biz is an interesting twist for sure, certain to raise American eyebrows not accustomed to booze and fast food, but one I expect to quickly become the norm.

But the beer snob in me hopes they can come up with something better than Budweiser. Because I think I would rather just drink water.

Wait. I think we’re talking about the same thing here.

Dr “Hold The Onion” Gerlich


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