Alcohol is on the menu at South Florida’s Sonic, with $1.50 beers offered with your burger and fries.
The temptation that is fast-food dining has always been a slippery slope. Give in to your burger craving, and it gets pretty hard to turn down some added fries. But what if things could get even more sinful?
As in, instead of that plain ol’ Coke: “would you like a beer with that?”
That’s the question that fast-food joints are increasingly posing to customers, both in South Florida and around the nation. The latest example is the South Florida return of Sonic Drive-In, which is back after a two-decade absence.
Carhops delivering your food on roller skates? That’s still happening at Sonic, but its Fort Lauderdale Beach concept store also boasts karaoke nights, beer pong tables, and $1.50 drafts.
Sonic’s addition of alcohol — which is limited to its South Florida stores — follows Burger King’s unveiling of a beer-serving “Whopper Bar’’ on Washington Avenue in South Beach in 2010. In the Midwest, White Castle is experimenting with beer and wine at a single Indiana location.
Don’t go expecting beer at the drive-thru (there are laws against that), but for dine-in customers, it might be a good idea to bring your ID.
Even Starbucks, which generally serves healthier food options, is adding alcohol at a handful of locations, in hopes of attracting more “evening” customers.
“Wine is the really important product, and I don’t think that’s surprising,” said Starbucks spokesman Zack Hutson. “People who like good coffee also usually like good wine.”
Starbucks has been serving wine and beer (often from local vineyards and breweries) at some Pacific Northwest stores for a year and a half, with the coffee chain planning to expand the initiative to select Chicago, Atlanta, and Southern California locations by the end of 2012. For now, Starbucks’ Florida locations are sticking to the traditional menu — the only buzz you’ll be getting here is from your Iced Venti Vanilla Latte.
At Sonic’s Fort Lauderdale eatery, it’s not just the beer that’s new — the entire floor plan has a decidedly more festive, bar-like feel. Roller-skating waitresses provide full table service for those who want it, while a hostess lures in patrons with a mixture of dancing and, occasionally, playing air guitar. Customers can order drinks at a rectangular bar, and watch sports games on big-screen TVs.
For spring break, beer pong tables and Tuesday night karaoke were added.
“Cheap beer and chilli fries,” said 26-year-old Matt Lubbers, a visitor from Michigan who was giving the beer pong table a whirl. “How can you go wrong?”
The beer at Sonic is indeed cheap, with $1.50 Pabst Blue Ribbons the hot seller of late. But not everyone is sold on the atmosphere, despite occasional DJ appearances, and an impressive ocean view.
“It’s like a nightclub and a Sonic,” said Lee Trimble, 24, of Hollywood. Trimble said the mix “isn’t exactly ideal,” yet here he was anyway.
“For $1.50 beer,” he said. “I’ll drink anywhere.”
Yet as fast food is increasingly paired with fast booze, alcohol watchdog groups are voicing concern.
“Traditionally, a lot of these businesses are family-oriented,” said Michael Scippa of the California-based Alcohol Justice advocacy group. “So it’s sending a wrong message, that alcohol is normal, morning, noon and night.”
And rock-bottom alcohol prices, Scippa added, can encourage binge drinking, particularly among price-sensitive young adults.
Oklahoma South Restaurant Group LLC, the Miami-based company that purchased Sonic’s local franchise rights for an undisclosed amount, says its decision to add beer and wine was simply about giving customers additional choices “at a fair price.”
“We’re not promoting drunkenness,” said Melissa Halleran, the franchisee’s vice president of operations and management.
Halleran’s company is unconnected to the previous operators of local Sonics decades ago. Back then, Sonic had several South Florida locations — and big expansion dreams — but Hurricane Andrew derailed those ambitions, and ultimately led the company to exit the area entirely.
This latest incarnation of Sonic, dubbed Sonic Beach, opened in Homestead in June and in Fort Lauderdale in November. Additional Sonics are also planned for Miami Gardens and Lauderhill.
David Henkes, a vice president at Technomic, a leading food industry research firm, said that while Sonic and other fast food chains are “dabbling” with beer and wine, he’s not convinced it will ever grow beyond that. Adding beer might make sense in certain unique locations, he said, but a nationwide push would pose massive regulatory hurdles, such as state laws that require employees to be of a certain age to serve alcohol. Traditionally, a large chunk of fast food employees have been underage high school teens.
Sonic, based in Oklahoma City, has no immediate plans to sell alcohol in other parts of the country.
Still, the experimentation makes sense, Henkes said, given that fast-food restaurants have been struggling with flat-to-declining revenues in recent years.
Where sales have been rising considerably is in the fast-but-slightly-more-upscale restaurant sector — restaurants like Chipotle Mexican Grill. Those establishments typically market themselves as having higher-quality ingredients, and they also sometimes sell alcohol.
As fast food restaurants follow suit, their bottom line could get a modest boost, but there’s also potential customer confusion to contend with — particularly at Fort Lauderdale’s Sonic, which lacks a drive-thru.
Some customers, for example, have had to adjust to the slightly longer time it takes to receive your meal when a waitress brings it to you. At the Homestead location, the more-typical drive-in layout exists, but there’s also the new wrinkle of a decorative sand “beach,” and multiple flat-screen TVs. It’s a place where you can scarf down a quick bite in your car, or — in theory at least — grab a patio seat, sip a beer, and watch the Super Bowl.
“We’re in the business of selling fun and entertainment,” said Arthur Halleran, chairman of the local Sonic franchisee. “If they want to have a hamburger with a draft beer, they’ve got it.”