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How Fast Casual Is Rewriting the Restaurant Wine List

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Eater wine editor Levi Dalton takes a look at the marriage of inexpensive food and good wine.

[The dining room at Fuku+]
[The dining room at Fuku+]
All photos by Nick Solares

The fast casual restaurant boom continues to expand, and the category, which was the only segment among restaurants as a whole to emerge from the economic recession with strong growth, is decidedly reshaping the dining map. While fast casual in general has generated an average 15.5 percent revenue growth unit growth nationwide, the change in certain neighborhoods of Manhattan, such as NoMad, Union Square, and some areas of Midtown, has been even more amplified than that. It is worth remembering that Shake Shack, which has grown new units at an average rate of 73 percent a year over the last 5 years, was born here. Along with this emergence of fast casual there has developed a new kind of wine program to go with it, and the sheer force of popularity for fast casual is quickly turning over old ideas of what a restaurant wine list should look like.

Offering alcohol is a key differentiation between fast casual and fast food, according to Zach Koff, the Vice President of Operations for Shake Shack. "Having wine available shows our fine dining roots," says Koff, alluding to Shake Shack’s association with respected restauranteur Danny Meyer. And David Chang followed a similar logic when opening Fuku and Fuku+ recently, featuring wine selections at both. When operators have wanted to emphasize that they are offering high quality food within their casual service environment, they have turned to wine to help separate their restaurants from the simpler fast food chains. While traditional restaurants have in recent years shrunk their wine lists in attempts to appear more accessible and to control costs, fast casual operators have often made every effort to include wine on their menus so as to offer a more refined experience.

While traditional restaurants have strongly embraced the mixology trend, touting custom menus of house cocktails, fast casual restaurants have not followed suit. While wine competes with beer for customer attention at fast casual, there are generally few liquor options available, if any at all. Shake Shack, for instance, does not offer spirits. Partly, this is about speed of service: wine doesn’t require the mixing time of a craft cocktail: it is simply poured and served. And when restaurants feature spirits the amount of possible drink permutations tends to multiply exponentially, while fast casual operators prefer short menus that keep customers focused on a limited set of options, and the line moving ("small and focused menus are what we do in general," says Koff). That kind of volume operation suits wine by the glass well, and customers are already accustomed to limited wine by the glass selections, even in fine dining environments.

Shake Shack in Madison Square Park Nick Solares

Another outgrowth of the necessity to keep up with volume is the rapid adoption of alternative wine packaging within fast casual. Boxed wines and kegs allow for quick pours without the use of a corkscrew. And while downmarket associations may have kept traditional restaurants from embracing packaging alternatives, this is not a handicap for fast casual. Fine dining restaurants have shown limited interest in kegs, but at fast casual they are a dominant theme. It was no surprise when fast casual chain Dig Inn recently began offering wine in its NoMad location that the company opted for the keg format: kegs are easy for the staff to operate. And while there has been almost no move towards boxed wines at traditional restaurants in New York, Fuku+ just debuted a wine menu devoted to them. Not only is boxed wine more environmentally friendly than glass bottles, it also reduces the packaging and shipping costs for the supplier, which then don’t get passed on down the line. In a restaurant category where the under $10 glass of wine is an important segment, Fuku+ is offering red and white wine options for $5 a glass.

It goes without saying that there is no sommelier working the floor of Shake Shack or similar fast casual outlets. But that does say something in itself, in an era where traditional restaurants are adding to sommelier teams at an unprecedented rate. At fast casual restaurants, the wine list has to work by itself, as a list only, and the people designing them have worked to make them more self-explanatory. Shake Shack offers a "Shake Red" and a "Shake White" by the glass, for instance, as self evident categories. The chain also makes a point of featuring domestic wines by the half bottle, which are usually labelled by grape varietal. That kind of labeling gives customers some straightforward handles with which to make a decision and order.

Part of the success of fast casual wine menus is in their overall accessibility, with options that can suit a wide range of tastes. But that doesn’t mean that customers are forgoing a sense of luxury while dining in fast casual venues. Sparkling wine is a popular category at Shake Shack, says Koff, and Fuku+ makes a point of offering Prosecco as an off-menu option. That suggests that wine helps to extend the range of experiences available to fast casual diners, while fast casual restaurants have also helped extend the role of wine on premise.

Pricing is another factor in that range of options, and another point of contrast with fine dining. While many traditional restaurants in New York City have hewed to a three times markup model for wines, fast casual has very much broken from that mold in favor of a volume model. The markups for half bottles of wine at Shake Shack are purposely kept low, to encourage sales, explains Koff. Fast casual venues do the kind of customer volume that can allow them to offer lower margins, while the smaller tasting menu counters of fine dining are hemmed in from making a similar decision by the relatively low number of guests they may serve in an evening. With more customers, you have more opportunities for a sale, and that makes it less necessary to maximize the revenue on each sale. In the end the customer can benefit from a lower wine markup at a fast casual restaurant.

As fast casual continues to expand its reach, and as diners make it more of a part of their dining habits, there will undoubtedly be more innovation on the wide side of fast casual menus. Fast casual is in many ways a young category, with operators rapidly trying to develop new ideas to roll out. What is surprising is the extent to which wine has already played a role at these establishments, and the success these wine programs have found without embracing the old rules.