How to add alcohol to the fast-casual lane without causing a traffic jam.
By Thomas Henry Strenk
When fast-casual operators attempt to bump up checks by offering something harder than soft drinks, they can’t neglect the “fast” part of the equation. Throughput is what it’s all about.
“Alcohol offerings can drive traffic and increase average checks,” says Donna Hood Crecca, associate principal at Technomic. But “speed of service is crucial in the fast-casual environment, so drink-making processes must be streamlined yet deliver on consistency and quality.”
Many fast-casual operators are experimenting with different strategies to sell these beverages in a counter-service environment, most often without a dedicated bar. There’s no one right answer as to how to do it, and approaches are evolving. Taking up the bibulous challenge are several operators who are discovering that profitable sweet spot between fast and casual.
Finding a format that fits
Pasadena, Calif.-based Dog Haus International is a fast-casual concept serving craft hot dogs, sausages and burgers. Guests can choose from signature creations such as the Grand Slam (a hot dog with smoked bacon, fried egg, tater tots and maple-syrup Sriracha) or customize from a selection of more than 40 toppings. “Nothing goes better with gourmet hot dogs or burgers than craft beer,” says Quasim Riaz, a partner in the venture.
Currently, there are 12 units, and the chain has several strategies for dispensing alcohol, depending upon store size and configuration, customer demographics and licensing costs, among other factors. Its newest application is a freestanding, self-serve beer dispenser. “We like the system because, in theory, it will increase throughput,” says Riaz. The counter person just hands over a cup and an RFID card, and the customer mulls over the beer choices—away from the ordering line—and taps his [or her] own beer. Guests don’t need to wait in line again for a refill, either.
Wine service at Dog Haus is fast and efficient thanks to canned product. No need for staffers to struggle drawing a cork; they just give the guests a can of vino and a glass. Stores that don’t have tap systems, either self-serve or behind the counter, offer canned beer as well. The packaging stacks better and takes up less storage space than bottles, and there’s less breakage, says Raiz.
Two Dog Haus restaurants have a separate bar area, and a new unit opening in Las Vegas will serve cocktails as well. During busy periods, the full bar is manned by a dedicated staffer. Higher sales offset any extra labor costs, says Riaz, who adds, “Throughput is not affected.”
“From a practical business perspective, we wanted to build our dinnertime traffic and our brunch and weekend business by offering beer, wine and cocktails,” says Jeff LaTulippe, co-founder and GM of fast-casual DIRT, a farm-to-counter restaurant in Miami Beach, Fla.
DIRT is aimed at health-conscious consumers with its vegetable-forward menu items. For example, a seasonal bowl of roasted curry cauliflower, quinoa and arugula with butternut squash cashew “cream” is finished with pomegranate arils and spiced pumpkin seeds. Drinks follow the same philosophy as the food: The four craft beers on tap all are local, wines are from small, sustainable vineyards and sake for cocktails is from artisanal producers.
Instead of a single station, DIRT installed two ordering counters as the chief means of increasing throughput. Customers who just want something to drink—including nonalchoholic cold-pressed juices, smoothies, tea, cold-brew coffee and kombucha—can proceed directly to the beverage counter, which reduces congestion at the food counter and shortens the line. Any drinks ordered at the food counter are relayed via linked POS units to the beverage area so that customers can pick those up right away before heading to their tables to await their food order. A roaming staffer with an ordering tablet asks guests if they would like another beverage, which helps boost checks.
The beverage counter is set up for efficiency. Within a few steps of the register and easily accessible to the server are beer taps, a bucket holding chilled bottles of white and rose wines and an assortment of reds—ready to pour and go. The display encourages impulse purchases, says LaTulippe.
DIRT’s cocktails are simply made by spiking the cold-pressed juices and cold-brew coffee with wine and sake to make lower-alcohol shims. Cross-utilizing the beverages reduces prep labor, and the drinks are a little healthier than the typical cocktail, says LaTulippe. Another factor in the decision to offer shims was that sake falls under the beer and wine license, which is less expensive to purchase than a full liquor license.
Cocktail components are batched and ready to go in under-counter refrigerators. The alcohol drinks, says LaTulippe, are no more difficult nor time-consuming to prepare than other beverages, so there is no problem with throughput.