Fast-food chains have discovered what will bring customers back: alcohol

Fast food and booze.
Fast food and booze.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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Burger King wants to serve booze alongside its Whopper cheeseburgers at another of its locations in New York City—a bold move for the burger chain and a clear sign that your favorite fast food joints are increasingly looking to add alcohol to their menus.

Fast food companies are trying to reinvent themselves in order to compete more effectively against fast-casual restaurants such as Panera Bread Company, which generally offer more choices and customization in ordering. Same-store sales at McDonald’s, in particular, have been shrinking for several quarters in a row now.

But aside from Chipotle Mexican Grill and their margaritas, most fast food is a dry affair. The industry needs new ideas to stay competitive, and alcohol offers a unique opportunity to stay ahead of the curve.

More and more, fast food giants such as Burger King and Taco Bell are testing how consumers respond to the option of buying beer with their burgers. Burger King already offers beer at one of its downtown Manhattan locations, and in a few in the United Kingdom.

Burger King isn’t the only fast food chain flirting with putting alcohol on its menu. Several new Taco Bell restaurants in Canada will offer beer this summer when they open as a way to test consumer interest in the sudsy beverage. The concept is akin to the few “cantina” style Taco Bells in the United States, which already offer alcoholic drinks. The hope is that adding booze to the menu will encourage people to sit in the restaurants longer and, of course, spend more money. There’s even been talk of serving margaritas at a Canadian location.

Adding liquor to the menu is no easy task, due to the many legal restrictions. No underage employees are allowed to handle the alcohol, creating an extra layer of in-store regulation that managers are responsible for. Such drinks also must be consumed on the premise of the restaurants and in clear cups only. Customers are not permitted to take the drinks to-go. (Though there are some areas of the US, including New Orleans, where customers can take open alcohol containers onto the street.)

Even if individual restaurants are prepared to oversee and manage the complications of having a liquor license, obtaining one remains a hurdle. In New York City, for instance, Burger King’s request will fall to a state liquor authority board, which processes many requests at any given time.

Whether the new Burger King request will be approved remains to be seen. But if booze is added to more fast food menus, expect your favorite quick-serve burger joint to become a new happy hour contender.