Should fast food joints offer beer and wine?

burgers, fries, and wine?Burgerville is a quirky Pacific Northwest-style fast food institution. Where else but in Portland, Oregon (and nearby suburbs) could you find a fast food joint whose regular salad options included one with local hazelnuts and crumbles from a world-renowned smoky blue cheese? The chain also is known for its use of local, range-grown beef, its seasonal food options -- it only offers onion rings in Walla Walla sweet onion season, for instance -- and all its old fryer oil is picked up for conversion into biodiesel.

The latest salvo in the burger war is another local offering (slow foodies rejoice!) but is even more unconventional: beer and wine. The chain is in the application process to get a liquor license to serve local beers and wines at its Salmon Creek concept restaurant in Vancouver, Washington. As more fast food chains branch out to compete with a range of other food service businesses; from McDonald's Corp. (MCD) McCafe concept going head-to-head with Starbucks, Burger King's (BKC) Whopper Bar challenging Subway, and more; will wine and beer be the next step?

Initial reactions to the application have been mixed. It's not a stretch to realize that a fast food restaurant, targeted toward children, could be a bad place for drunks. Late last year, the story about brawls and other assaults at Chuck E. Cheese restaurants around the country focused in on the culprit: the alcohol served (to adults) at children's birthday parties and family celebrations. However, this environment is quite different; without games or other entertainment, families stopping in for a meal stay only to order and eat, making lingering long enough to get plastered unlikely.

So, people probably won't be turning Burgervilles and other kid-focused fast food outlets into taverns. The question remains: in an economy where consumers are downscaling from fast casual eateries like Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's, and Starbucks is introducing value meals, does it make sense for a fast food restaurant to be charging in the opposite direction?

I say, contrarily, yes. On a recent visit to the Burgerville in my neighborhood, I was tempted by the monthly gourmet option (a white bean veggie burger), but chose the aforementioned blue cheese salad instead, topped with dried cranberries and hazelnuts. For my kids: yukon gold crosscut fries and cheeseburgers. If wine had been an option, I probably would have ordered some; honestly, many of the sorts of mamas and dads who pick a "healthy" fast food restaurant want nothing more than a nice quiet glass of wine while their children fill up on deep-fried potatoes.

Would this work for McDonald's and Burger King? Not in every store, but I'd suggest that concept restaurants where the chains are opening larger McCafe stations and Whopper Bars would score big points by offering a few mid-range beers and wines. The same philosophy that crashes and burns at Chuck E. Cheese is a huge success at a restaurant where tired, tapped out parents take their children for a dose of protein at the end of the day: honestly, parents really need a drink. We all know, already, that big margins are attendant with alcohol; what better way to boost profits than to give parents -- who probably can't afford either babysitting or the high price of more upscale restaurants that serve alcohol -- happy-hour style treatment in a happy meal atmosphere? Off the top of my head: I can't think of any better idea.

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