Fast-casual restaurant operators are marching arm-in-arm with craft brewers, creating signature pairings for the growing number of consumers who enjoy high-quality food and beer with a local connection. With craft beer sales soaring by 17 percent last year, according to Brewers Association figures, little wonder that operators seek a seat on the better-beer bandwagon.
For the fast-casual Smashburger chain, it all started last fall with a pilot program in its Denver home market that paired signature items like the Colorado Burger, featuring locally popular ingredients like fresh green chiles, pepper Jack cheese and a spicy chipotle bun, with beers made by New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colo. Smashburger founder and chief concept officer Tom Ryan and the brewers tasted burgers and beers to select the best matches. The chosen burgers and brews were showcased on menu cards and touted in local blogs, as well social and traditional media.
“We got a lot of national attention by simply pairing next-generation burgers with next-generation beers,” Ryan said. “And our Colorado consumers really responded well. We saw traffic increases, a lot of traction toward the pairings and incremental beer sales.”
Since then, the better-burger outfit, which has more than 200 units, has teamed with brewers on localized pairings in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Miami; Minneapolis; Houston; Dallas and Phoenix. There are plans to follow suit in Chicago, Cincinnati and San Diego as well.
Beer is an “occasion-driver and point of differentiation” for Smashburger that contributes to overall business, Ryan said.
“If you look at all the checks that have beer on them, all of that would be liable to competitive inroads if we didn’t have that beer,” Ryan said. “When you add up all those checks, it amounts to almost a fifth of our business — in the high teens, approaching 20 percent.”
Another prominent fast-casual player, Chipotle Mexican Grill, is serving beers by Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company in more than half of its Kansas City restaurants, a Chipotle spokesperson said. That followed a successful test in Chicago units of beers by the Chicago-based brewery 5 Rabbit Cerveceria. Chipotle is also pursuing partnerships with brewers in Seattle; San Francisco; Minneapolis; and Portland, Ore.
The beer offerings of the fast-casual eatery Bel 50 in Chicago take inspiration from the brewing culture of Belgium, apropos of its menu specialty, savory and sweet waffle sandwiches. In addition to a pair of popular of popular Belgian imports, the list includes a Belgian-influenced stout from Maine and a Belgian-style tripel from Michigan.
For Shake Shack, Union Square Hospitality Group’s 24-unit better-burger chain, a burger tasting with Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, was the first step in developing ShackMeister Ale, the 24-unit chain’s private-label craft brew. Oliver created a slightly bitter, medium-bodied beer that complements, but does not overshadow, the ShackBurger’s caramelized meat notes and slightly sweet potato bun, said Mark Rosati, culinary development manager for the New York-based burger concept.
“The Brooklyn Brewery team are great beer makers, but they’re all big foodies too, which I think is why there is so much camaraderie between us,” Rosati said. “Our conversations with these guys often segue from beer into what they like to pair with dinner and the great restaurants in which they have eaten.”
In addition to stocking the private-label brew, Shake Shack units also offer craft beer brands that are popular in their local market.
Southern California beer fans check Facebook to discover what new small-production brews executive chef Eric Hulme has in store at Tender Greens in Hollywood, Calif., one of a group of nine “fast-fine” restaurants that serve locally sourced, chef-driven cuisine over a counter.
A recent pairing featured grilled fresh yellowtail over Himalayan red rice salad with roasted mushrooms and fennel, matched with Helles Lager from Hangar 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands, Calif.
Hulme, a homebrewer and beer blogger who has taken a commercial brewing class, said close business relationships with craft brewers allow him to serve some of the area’s hardest-to-get products. He may tap anything from a one-off creation by Smog City Brewing Company, a husband-and-wife boutique brewery in Tustin, Calif., to an aged barrel of 2011 Anchor Christmas Ale from San Francisco, one of only a handful allocated for Los Angeles.
“We put the beer pairings on our special board and on our Twitter and Facebook feeds, and we give personal suggestions if people want them,” Hulme said. “Since I’ve been here, a lot more people are paying attention to our beers and asking what’s coming next. We’re really seeing our beer sales start to climb the ladder, too.”