How the Bar is Helping Customers Return to Fast Casual

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Even though the pandemic stopped in-person eating in its tracks, it was definitely drinking time. And restaurants have rushed to capitalize with take-out cocktails and mixed drinks.

Now, even as new variants complicate matters, socialized consumer demand has made a visible comeback.

Austin, Texas-based Hopdoddy Burger Bar is seeing full bars. While geographic markets vary somewhat, guests are embracing the community gatherings they’ve missed during months of COVID restrictions. It’s not a relic from an earlier era – people want to come to a bar and strike up a conversation with friends or a bartender or even a stranger, says Jeff Chandler, CEO of Hopdoddy.

Certainly, liquor, beer, and wine service has been Hopdoddy’s hallmark since day one. It’s in the name. Fast casual was conceived as a “perfect union” between burgers and beer, Chandler says. The bar is central to restaurants, both physically and figuratively, and diners have enjoyed this COVID outing.

“I think one of the things that COVID has taught a lot of people is that they appreciate people,” Chandler says. “They value the community interactions, and I think we’ve been able to really embrace that and foster that in a safe way as people feel more comfortable dining out and in crowded restaurants.”

The renewed social push for booze has also unfolded at California-based Dog Haus, which started 11 years ago with just three beers on tap and then quickly flourished as Dog Haus Biergarten. The alcohol shift has pushed the brand forward, and 14 of the next 15 openings will be as beer gardens, with more than 30 draft beers alongside cocktails.

“We were also part of the ghost kitchen scene during the pandemic, which was great,” says André Vener, founding partner of Dog Haus. “And it continues to do well, but we never stopped building Biergartens.”

And as the pandemic looms in the rearview mirror, more patrons are embracing the bar again.

“A lot of people have already had their booster shots, and they’re ready to catch up on what they’ve been missing for the past 18 or 20 months now,” Vener adds.

Cheba Hut Toasted Subs, a brand of cannabis-themed sandwiches, hit bars 15 years ago. These days, it’s part of Cheba Hut’s DNA, says Seth Larsen, Chief Relationship Officer. This has been a way to differentiate the sandwich brand as a restaurant that is not a full restaurant or a place where the nature of counter service prevents customers from socializing over a cocktail or two.

There are various advantages to this approach, Larsen says. Cheba Hut’s sandwich competitors typically don’t have bars, and the drink offering eliminates veto votes from patrons who want a drink alongside their dinner.

Cheba Hut bars are also unique in that even the highest volume can still run sales with just one bartender, Larsen says. Also, the majority of Cheba Hut sales arrive after 2pm. This is an unusual feat for a diner at a venue that primarily sells sandwiches.

The growth of alcohol in fast food marks a change in consumer behavior. The typical guest might not want to spend an extended period of time hanging out and eating, but they still want the perks that come with “genuine hospitality,” like booze, Larsen says.

Just because food is fast doesn’t mean it can (or should) lack quality. People want better-quality meals at quick-service restaurants, not just at their full-service fine-dining competitors, Vener notes. And with high taste often comes adult drink pairings.

“I think people are turning fast, casual places into places to hang out for a few hours,” says Vener. “You don’t need white linen tablecloths to go out for a few cocktails.”

“Alcohol is part of the social fabric of America,” adds Larsen. “Sitting down and having a drink and talking to a bartender or a friend next to you or a stranger on the other side is part of the culture here. I really think consumers want to get back to that and that’s certainly what we’re seeing right now.

Throughout COVID, Cheba Hut has remained mostly open and only temporarily laid off bartenders in the most difficult times. The silver lining of the pandemic for the brand was that average tickets increased significantly from $13 to around $18. And technology-related orders have increased tenfold.

“We could never have trained our customer base to transition to digital sales so quickly without an outside force like COVID,” says Larsen.

Hopdoddy also learned that convenience played a bigger role in reaching customers, but the community aspect of his bars never wavered. In the wake of COVID, other brands have acted on the same idea that beer, wine and liquor sales could be another mechanism to attract customers and keep them coming back, Chandler says.

The resurgence of craft brewing and cocktails has helped customers find themselves drawn to the polished creativity of a sophisticated drink. But many states have also relaxed rules that allow operators to serve packaged drinks for takeout. For Hopdoddy, that meant he could successfully introduce The Roadie, a half-gallon bag of Hopdoddy’s Frozen House Margarita.

It is an additional and compelling menu offering that plays on the convenience desires of customers. As a “highly Instagrammable product” that travels well and stays put, The Roadie has all the wheels to achieve widespread commercial success, Chandler says.

Throughout its off-site alcohol business, Hopdoddy has recognized the need to sell responsibly, ensuring that it does not permit underage drinking and that there is no no more overconsumption. For example, customers can only buy Hopdoddy’s liquor with food.

“I think people are drinking more at home,” Chandler says. “They drink better at home. I think they realize that more and more restaurants are offering creative offerings. And so I think they’re more in tune with that.

Similarly, brands that have remained nimble, delivered an irresistible product and cared for their employees have survived the pandemic, Larsen says, adding that Cheba Hut is a stronger brand having come through the last year and a half.

Indeed, part of Cheba Hut’s future plans to stay nimble is its own take-out booze game. Cheba Hut plans to pilot take-out liquor offerings in the Albuquerque, New Mexico market in the fourth quarter.

Larsen acknowledges that challenges abound for restaurants looking to increase revenue with takeout alcohol, as each state has different regulations. Still, Larsen is confident that on-the-go booze is here to stay and signature cocktails will be ahead of the pack.

The key is to keep it simple and offer customers something they can’t get anywhere else. Customers are more likely to buy a specialty drink such as a Cheba Hut Hash Can rather than buying a regular beer of the same brand.

Vener says finding the right container for transport is also key to providing a great on-the-go alcohol experience, while ensuring customers have specific instructions on how to match a cocktail to the one they would be receiving. in shops.

Third-party apps are already rushing to meet the demand for on-the-go alcohol. Since September, DoorDash has expanded its liquor delivery service to 20 new states, the District of Columbia, Canada and Australia.

“He’s got legs, and I think he’s here to stay,” Larsen said. “I know many states are continually fighting for this. I think restaurants have proven they can do this responsibly and successfully.

Chandler reiterates that statement. At Hopdoddy, alcohol sales have increased by around 10-13% throughout the pandemic. Off-premises orders still represent about 30% of business, and alcohol orders represent about 13% of off-premises orders.

Before the pandemic, customers probably wouldn’t have thought of ordering an alcoholic drink to go, but now it can be a natural extension of a brand they patronize. However, to be successful, businesses must stay true to their brand, adapt to travel, and focus on who their consumers are.

“More people are indulging today than ever before,” Chandler says. “I think brands that offer a forgiving, high-quality, affordable product will win.”

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