Smashburger — the Denver-based fast-casual burger chain — announced the opening of its first location with a full-service bar on March 25. Located in the brand’s hometown, the bar offers craft cocktails, canned beer and beer on tap against the backdrop of flatscreen TV shows playing the biggest sporting events.
While this is Smashburger’s first foray into more of a full-service environment, president Carl Bachmann said it’s the natural evolution of fast-casual into a more elevated experience that began with the pandemic.
“This is the way of the future for fast-casual,” Bachmann told Nation’s Restaurant News. “It’s a way for people to get that casual-dining experience at a fast-casual pricepoint. […] I think as fast casual matures as an industry, you’re going to see restaurants offer not only other channels of revenue, but an overall better dining experience.”
While the days of the Chipotle-style assembly line with customers in line waiting to order on their lunch break are not over, this brand that emphasizes a more elevated fast-casual experience is becoming more popular. Similarly, fast-casual barbecue chain Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue has recently opened locations in New York City with full-service bars and a curated cocktail menu.
“You can still walk in and have your traditional Smashburger fast-casual experience-- hop on line, pay at the register and then we bring the food to you,” Bachmann said. “But if you want to take it a step further and watch the game on TV while having a meal with your family, you can do that too.”
Bachmann noted that the lines are blurring between different restaurant categories as brands try to meet their customers where they are, like Applebee’s or other casual-dining chains that are adding drive-thru lanes. Smashburger is also investing more in drive-thru as convenience reigns king. Later this year, the brand will be opening its first virtual drive-thru lane in Houston, where customers will be able to place their order ahead of time and drive up to pick it up, giving the new Smashburger prototype portfolio elements of quick-service convenience and casual-dining experience.
“The important reason why we want to go to the virtual drive thru is that we cook every burger fresh to order,” Bachmann said. “So a seven-minute wait for your food is acceptable if you’re sitting in a dining room, but not if you’re waiting in your car. We knew we wanted to take advantage of the commute time to have time to cook the orders.”
While more virtual drive-thru restaurants are already in the works for Smashburger, they will look at introducing a full-service bar to more locations in the future as well. The next Smashburger bar location will be in New York City, right next to the Madison Square Garden arena, with three others in the works. At each of these locations, guests will be able to order libations like a Blackberry Smash made with Jim Beam, lemon, and mint; a rum punch, and a smoky and spicy margarita.
“I think some of the some of our strategy changed a little bit,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t returning full-time to their office, so you can’t rely on the work crowd. I think there’s a new kind of excitement in suburban areas.”
Even as Smashburger adds more channels for takeout, drive-thru and dine-in service, Bachmann said the focus has to be on driving that reason why people will want to make the choice to walk into the restaurant and stay.
“People pay a lot for food lately and I think you have to really deliver on the experience,” he said.
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