Evan Lockhart/Thrillist
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

Why Most Fast-Food Chains Don't Serve Alcohol

On a recent trip to Paris, I learned that one of the most jarring cultural disparities wasn't the language barrier or the persistent and inexplicable barrage of mimes; it was the divine luxury of walking into a McDonald's and being able to order a full glass of beer. It blew Vincent Vega's mind back in the '90s, and it blew my mind two decades later.

So why can't we order a McBeer with our Quarter Pounders in America? For that matter, why can't we dip our fries in a refreshing glass of rosé at Wendy's or other major fast-food joints? If sit-down chains like Applebee's can serve beer and cocktails, why don't more counter-service restaurants?

The few, the proud

This is not to say that all counter-service restaurants don't serve alcohol in the United States. Chipotle, which had already been serving beer, made waves in 2013 when it added margaritas to the menu of many of its locations. Just a couple of years later, Taco Bell rolled out its upscale Cantina locations, where patrons could suck down boozy slushies and beer with their Double Chalupas. Burger King also operates a handful of Whopper Bars, which offer customers burgers with beer pairings. Even Starbucks saw the appeal of serving adult beverages in a fast casual set-up and introduced beer and wine with its Evenings concept in 2010.

The coffee chain cut the  "Evenings" menu entirely earlier this year, however. A Starbucks spokesperson tells Thrillist that this is because the chain is focused on building out their fancy Reserve Roasteries locations, adding that the chain is looking to "integrate beer, wine and spirits into our new retail formats." And even though the Taco Bell Cantina locations have had an "overwhelmingly positive" reception, per a Taco Bell spokesperson, there are no plans to serve booze in the chain's 7,000 regular locations.

taco bell liquor
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist

The logistical hurdles are intense

Serving alcohol isn't as easy as ordering some beer and some cups -- it can be a real logistical nightmare for restaurants. "Due to laws that came on the heels of prohibition, Blue Laws, and that sort of thing, liquor regulations are incredibly complicated," said restaurant consultant Clarke Wolf. "Not only do the specifics vary from state-to-state, but they can change from county-to-county, even town-to-town. Getting a liquor license is not easy or cheap."

Wolf notes that in places like California's popular wine region, Sonoma County, liquor licenses can go for upward of $250,000 for just the initial fee, while two-year liquor licenses in New York City can cost nearly $75,000.

But price isn't necessarily what drives these multi-million-dollar fast-food franchises away from libations. It becomes much more difficult to find real estate when a business serves booze. "You have to think about how, where, and why fast-food restaurants open," he said, "Normally, they are located in spots close to schools, parks, other gathering places that can assure easy access. With liquor licenses, you have to be a certain distance from locations like schools and churches. Right there, the business plan has to change in many cases." This is why for many fast-food chains, alcohol is frequently relegated to "special" locations, seemingly designed around the novelty of serving alcohol.

"Getting a liquor license is not easy or cheap."

Wolf also points out that even the makeup of the workforce itself is a debilitating issue. Up to 30% of individuals working at fast-food chains are under 20, and many laws prohibit those under 21 from even touching closed containers of hooch. Factor in the extra insurance that would be needed, the uneasy issue of a drive-through restaurant serving alcohol (even if you can't actually order booze through the drive-through), and the overall complexity of storing, preparing, and systemizing alcohol distribution, and it's not hard for Wolf to see why brands have steered clear.

"It's all about weighing risk and reward in the restaurant business, and there are so many issues here [that] it would be just a tremendous task to implement that into an existing fast-food chain. They might have to change their entire business model," he said. "Does adding alcohol bring in a higher margin of profit? A lot of the time, yes. But you have to hold it against all the risk factors."

shake shack beer
Shake Shack/Facebook

It's all about reputation

The final hurdle counter-service chains face when attempting to add booze to the menu is that they are typically regarded as family-friendly institutions. (Children's meals are on the menu for a reason, and that reason isn't so that adults have an excuse to get a toy.) It's hard to add alcohol all of a sudden to a place designed with families and kids in mind.

Wolf said that the public's perception of a brand is vital to how they are allowed to operate within our culture. Americans have a certain ingrained idea of what brands do, and it's difficult to alter that viewpoint. That's why when Starbucks, for example, tries to bring alcohol to a location, there's community uproar. When Shake Shack does it, there are lines on opening day.

Perhaps that is because Shake Shack has offered beer and wine from the get-go -- it has always been part of the chain's blueprint. "The original vision for Shake Shack was all about taking us back to that old classic American roadside burger stand," said Mark Rosati, Shake Shack's culinary director. "For example, pairing a burger with wine and beer... we wanted to add the option to order a drink with our meals from the very beginning. People have always known that's part of what we do."

The same goes for Chipotle, which has offered beer at its restaurants ever since the original location opened in Denver in 1993, and which now serves wine and margaritas at most of its locations, too. "When people eat Mexican food, they just want beer and margaritas with it. That's always been part of our business plan because it just makes too much sense," said Chris Arnold, PR Director at Chipotle. "Serving margaritas means we need to get a full liquor license, which is a little more difficult, but we've always thought it was worth it. We're even making plans to add frozen margaritas to most of our locations, soon."

But, it's important to note that even Chipotle and Shake Shack fall victim to stringent American liquor laws sometimes. Both chains have a contingency of restaurants that do not serve alcohol, with locations falling victim to various issues like being too close to schools, in dry counties, or just in areas where liquor licenses are simply too expensive. "We try to serve alcohol in all our restaurants, but sometimes it's just not possible," Arnold said. "It's not a deal-breaker, but we've always preferred to offer our customers alcohol when we can."

"In Europe, there has never been an issue with these fast-food places serving alcohol," Wolf adds. "It's part of their culture, it's what they are used to. There's a precedent. The same applies to restaurants who have always made an effort to cultivate the kind of environment, like Shake Shack, that's more of a 'restaurant' feel. So, it's much easier for the public to digest the idea of drinking there."

Think about it: Would you be more or less apt to go to a fast-food joint if you knew you could get a craft beer, or a glass of pinot with your burger? It's not a secret that traditional fast-food ventures have failed to reach millennials, the way the industry reached the generations before. The logistical challenges are certainly daunting, but brands have not been averse to pulling out any and all stops in order to gain an advantage in an increasingly narrow market.

And while fast-casual chains like Shake Shack surge, and experiments like Taco Bell's Cantina show incredible success, traditional fast-food revenue dwindles. It may be time for the old guard to learn some new tricks to lure in a new crop of restaurant goers. Why not start with alcohol? It's definitely a lot more intriguing than touch screens.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He'd love to crack open a cold one with the Taco Bell chihuahua. Follow him @wilfulton.