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'Better-burger' restaurants offer adult drinks to lure customers

As premium beef, gourmet toppings and hand-cut fries become more of an expectation than a point of difference in the booming fast-casual “better-burger” niche, some operators are offering imaginative and upgraded beer, wine and spirits choices to stand out from the crowd.

An example is Big Daddy’s Burger Bar, with two locations in Charlotte, N.C., featuring 20 craft and import brews on draft, Sea Dog Blueberry Ale by the bottle and Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay by the glass. Another is Yeah! Burger in Atlanta, building its second unit, offering “a sweet little whiskey and bourbon package” along with well-chosen beers and wines, in the words of chef and co-owner Shaun Doty.

Setting the sector’s growth pace is Five Guys Burgers and Fries, the Virginia-based chain that has mushroomed to more than 630 locations since starting to franchise in 2003. Similar fast-casual concepts like Smashburger, Elevation Burger, Mooyah, Bobby’s Burger Palace and Shake Shack are on the rise as well.

“The explosion of these better-burger places has been tremendous in the last two years,” said David Henkes, vice president and on-premise practice leader of the Chicago-based consulting firm Technomic. “They all do a great job, but a lot of their tag lines are kind of the same — simplicity, focus on burgers, meat that’s never frozen, fresh-cut fries.”

Not all of the better-burger players sell alcohol, but for those that do, premium beverages are a way to stand out.

“Nothing goes better together than a burger and a beer,” said Henkes. “If operators can get it to fit operationally and concept wise, it is a great differentiator.”

That concept is understood at The Counter, one of the more established gourmet burger players. The 26-unit chain, based in Culver City, Calif., opened its first unit in 2003.

“We call our experience at The Counter the sum of the parts,” said founder Jeff Weinstein. “It is everything from the food to the service to the music to the lighting, down to the handcrafted beers, and we are constantly seeking those out.”

Beverages make up about 12 to 14 percent of total sales, with beer leading, Weinstein said. For instance, the Palo Alto, Calif., location has a quartet of draft beers, including Devil’s Canyon Full Boar Scotch Ale, which is brewed nearby, as well as nine bottled beers, a half-dozen signature cocktails and adult milkshakes like the Kahlua-spiked Keoke Coffee Shake.

The Counter also offers the Beer Paddle, a wooden holder for four three-ounce glasses of craft beers picked to complement four differently dressed mini-burgers. A typical pairing is Stone Brewing Co. Arrogant Bastard ale, billed as a “well balanced, amped-up brew” alongside a mini-burger topped with spicy pepperoni, black olives, blue cheese, grilled onion and roasted garlic aïoli.

“For $14, you can come in and have a full experience, feel like it is not the recession and be entertained,” Weinstein said.

Since opening in 2004, Burger Bar at Mandalay Place in Las Vegas has groomed a collection of distinctive craft and import brews to accompany the gourmet burger creations of chef Hubert Keller. It now stands at 24 drafts and 121 bottles hailing from more than a dozen nations.

“Some people may not think Vegas is a beer destination yet, but more craft breweries are coming in,” said Lloyd Funtnilla, manager and beer specialist. The arrival of limited-edition seasonal brews like Belgium’s Delirium Noel and Lagunitas Lucky 13 from Petaluma, Calif., creates a buzz among Burger Bar’s beer fans, who spread the word via blogs and Twitter.

At Yeah! Burger, beverages account for 30 percent of sales, Doty said, with beer predictably in the lead. But he sees an opportunity to grow sales even further by promoting specialty cocktails.

“It’s a matter of educating everyone to the unique beverage experience here,” Doty said. “How dynamite would it be to watch the Falcons game on TV, drink a Sazerac and have a grass-fed beef burger?”

At the two Big Daddy’s Burger Bars, the top-ten-selling drafts include Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and Bell’s Oberon, priced at $5.25 and $4.75, respectively.

“It tells me that there is a qualified drinker out there who is looking for flavor and quality and not unwilling to pay for it,” said Ashli Cohen, beverage director for the FS Food Group in Charlotte. 

“It would be a disservice to our guests not to offer as much variety and quality on the beverage side as we do on the food side,” Cohen added. “And the liquid side is the most profitable, so why not be as thorough there as you are with the culinary?”

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