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Fast-Casual Restaurants Take on Wine Lists

From kegs to private labels, fast-casual establishments are building strong brand messages through inventive wine options

collage of fa kitchen and a bottle wine
Souvla, San Francisco. Photo by Kassi Borreson

Fast casual is the new dining darling; with its emphasis on chef-driven recipes and quality ingredients, it’s a trend that’s being embraced by both diners and restaurateurs. The distinction between this category and fast food doesn’t stop with the dishes, though. Many fast-casual establishments go beyond the Big Gulp to offer a curated wine list.

Fast-casual entrepreneurs often come from a fine-dining background where wine pairing is an essential part of the experience. Unlike the multipage tomes offered by sommeliers, fast-casual lists are slim, concise affairs. Most contain only a single red, white, rosé, and sparkling by the glass, each meant to pair with a number of dishes. A slightly expanded bottle list, a small selection of beers, and occasionally cocktails may round out the drinks menu.  

Selections are rarely made in a silo. Made Nice, Eleven Madison Park’s new offshoot in Manhattan, built its New York–centric wines-on-tap program in collaboration with the kitchen and dining room leaders. “It was really important to put together a concise list of wines we love to drink that also paired really well with the menu we’re serving.” says general manager Kirk Kelewae.

The team at Dio Mio, a counter-service pasta bar in Denver, aim to build their reputation as a wine—not just food—destination, so they brought in a consultant to build the initial list. They frequently tweak their menu “by listening, watching, and deciding what people are leaning toward,”  says Hallie Bauernschmidt, Dio Mio’s general manager.

The wine list plays a key role in emphasizing the personality of a restaurant. At Souvla in San Francisco, the list was designed to highlight native Greek varietals from the three major wine regions of Greece: Naoussa, the Peloponnese, and the islandsin this case, Crete.We purposely wanted to keep things simple and approachable,” says Charles Bililies, founder and CEO, “and essentially ‘force’ our guests—nicely, of course—into drinking Greek!”

Private Label Offerings

Where fast casual really sees a branding opportunity is with private label wines and beers. The wines at Souvla were created especially for the company in partnership with three Greek wineries, and Made Nice offers a proprietary Riesling and beer. The origins of private label offerings can be traced back to Danny Meyer, one of the founders of the fast-casual concept, and his first Shake Shack.

Meyer had established relationships with Frog’s Leap winery and Brooklyn Brewery at Union Square Cafe, his first fine-dining restaurant, in New York City. “As Danny started opening more restaurants in the city, such as Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, he continued the relationships by serving Frog’s Leap wine and Brooklyn Brewery beers on the menus,” says Mark Rosati, Shake Shack’s culinary director. He explains that when Meyer opened Blue Smoke, his regional BBQ-inspired restaurant, he took his relationship with Brooklyn Brewery to the next level and worked with its head brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, to create a special beer for the restaurant, which became Blue Smoke Ale. “Soon after we opened the first Shake Shack in Madison Park,” Rosati says, “we tapped our friends at Frog’s Leap and Brooklyn Brewery to create our own specially crafted wine and beer to pair specifically with our modern roadside burger stand fare.” Nowadays, 79 domestic and 20 international Shake Shack locations offer the Shack brand beverages.

Stemware, Bottles, and Taps

Serving vessels extend the branding message just as much as beverage selections. Some venues opt for real glassware as a nod to fast casual’s fine-dining DNA, while others, such as Martina, the soon-to-open offshoot of Marta, Meyer’s pizza and champagne palace, serve all their wine, including their top-shelf champagne, in compostable clear plastic cups. “We are creating a fine-casual pizzeria and love the feeling of highbrow and lowbrow elements living side by side,” says Nick Anderer, executive chef at Martina.

Bottles are a popular choice, especially for restaurants that change their selection on a semiregular basis, but more storefronts are exploring wines on tap for service. “There’s great compatibility between the ease of service of taps and focused lists,” says Bruce Schneider, a cofounder of Gotham Project, the wine-on-tap supplier that provides Made Nice’s selection. One benefit of kegs, he explains, is that they’re space-efficient. “The tall, slim kegs take up less room than 26 bottles of wine. Plus, you don’t have to dispose of those 26 bottles,” he says, pointing out that an empty keg gets picked up when another is delivered. Schneider suggests that wine taps are a common consideration for restaurateurs these days. “It’s something people are looking at when starting a new restaurant,” he says. “People understand you need to think about taps and a draft system from the outset.” He says that once restaurateurs “put in these draft systems and dedicate a certain number to wines, they stick with it.”

As with fine dining, the teams at these fast-casual restaurants receive formal wine training so they can talk comfortably about the wines and make pairing recommendations. With Dio Mio’s “all hands on deck” approach to staffing (managers and chefs may sometimes pinch-hit for front-of-house positions), training the entire team is essential. “It’s a big [area] where a lot of restaurants miss an opportunity,” says Liz Batkin, the consultant who helped build Dio Mio’s opening list. “The people making the food should know just as much about the relationship between the food and the wine as the people working the floor.” She trained the team on proper wine service, so everyone learned how to open a bottle, serve it, and manage it tableside, which is especially important when a customer orders a higher-end bottle.

And order they do: Dio Mio estimates that 80 percent of customers order an alcoholic beverage, while Souvla reports that 65 percent of beverage sales come from wine.

By taking the preciousness out of wine service and by bolstering by-the-glass offerings, fast-casual restaurants showcase the pleasures of a fine-dining experience in 30 minutes or less. “In our minds,” says Kelewae, “Made Nice is first and foremost a restaurant—not a concept or a store—and we strongly believe that a proper meal in a restaurant should be accompanied by a great glass of wine.”

Shana Clarke is a freelance wine writer based in New York City and a PR/Marketing consultant for the wine and restaurant industries. You can often find her drinking BYOB Champagne at dim sum brunch. Follow her on Instagram or visit www.shanaspeakswine.com.

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