Offerings aim, in part, to raise chain’s credentials for local awareness
By Emily Bryson York | June 20, 2013
Smashburger founder Tom Ryan, left, and Goose Island brewmaster Brett Porter indulge in burger-and-beer pairings in May at Smashburger on North Clybourn Avenue. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune / June 20, 2013)
A long, narrow table is lined with burgers and beer, as executives from Goose Island and the Smashburger restaurant chain talk sweetness, spiciness and hops.
Group members are discussing which local brew would go best with Smashburger’s barbecue, bacon and cheddar burger. Goose Island’s brewmaster, Brett Porter, and educator, Suzanne Wolcott, politely disagree.
“The one that’s made me happiest has been the IPA,” Porter said. “It’s a nice counterpoint to the bacon, and this beer isn’t really enormously sweet but brings some sweetness out, and the hop aroma is intriguing.”
Wolcott is pulling for Matilda.
“I like putting sweet with sweet sometimes,” said Wolcott, who will ultimately win out. “With the barbecue sauce that’s inherently sweet, the Matilda also heightens some of the sweetness and the caramel taste with the barbecue sauce.”
Denver-based Smashburger is launching a beer-pairing menu in 10 of its 11 area restaurants Friday, matching seven of its best-selling sandwiches with Goose Island favorites. With an emphasis on Angus beef and high-quality toppings, the 209-unit national chain is trying to raise its credentials for local awareness.
Eight similar Smashburger programs are underway in other cities.
Smashburger’s digital menu boards will post icons of suggested Goose Island brews with seven of its most popular sandwiches. Someone ordering a basic burger would get the suggestion of an accompanying bottle of Goose Island 312, or a Sofie with the classic chicken sandwich.
A full list of the pairings with tasting notes will be placed on tables.
Experts say the program makes sense, given the popularity of craft beer and consumers’ growing desire to support local businesses.
It also has been good for beer sales at Smashburger, up 20 to 50 percent where pairings have been introduced, said founder Tom Ryan, a former McDonald’s executive.
“From day one we wanted to localize our menu,” said Ryan, adding that Smashburger has a locally themed burger in every market. Chicago’s Windy City burger features haystack onions, cheese spread, Gulden’s mustard, lettuce and tomato on a pretzel bun.
“When I was in college, you could walk into a bar and say: ‘I’ll have a burger and a beer,’ and that’s all you had to say,” said Ryan, adding that options for both have proliferated in the intervening decades.
“But what I’ve learned in talking to people is that they are more patterned about their beer than their burgers,” he said. “I know guys who say: ‘I only drink IPA.'”
Ryan hopes the pairing menu can get those people out of their rut, while also boosting his business.
Smashburger forged its first partnership in the country with Goose Island last summer, but a lease in the River North neighborhood fell through, putting the program on ice while the chain found and developed another spot. Smashburger opened that store, its first city of Chicago location, in the Lincoln Park neighborhood last month.
That location hasn’t yet received its liquor license and won’t participate in the pairing launch.
Smashburger’s other craft partnerships include New Belgium Brewery in Denver, Summit Brewing Co. in the Minneapolis area, and Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, N.Y.
While beer represents 3.5 percent of Smashburger’s total sales, craft beers’ gains suggest lots of room for growth. Ryan said attention for these programs helps Smashburger get consideration for date nights, and girls or boys nights out, and the higher check averages that those occasions bring.
While burgers and beers are hardly a new pairing, alcohol and fast food is relatively new, a reflection of the availability of liquor licenses and shifting societal norms.
Chipotle serves margaritas and beer in its restaurants, and alcohol service has become more common as the fast-casual segment of the restaurant industry has grown. Fast-casual restaurants are generally considered to be a step up from fast food in quality, service, price and waiting times.
High-end burger chains like Smashburger have become a growth vehicle for the fast-casual segment, which is growing faster than the restaurant industry, according to Technomic.
That also has meant a proliferation of so-called “better burger” chains, like M Burger and Tom & Eddie’s in the Chicago area. Given the competition, these concepts should all be looking for points of differentiation, said Dennis Lombardi, of WD Partners, a Dublin, Ohio-based consulting firm.
Craft beers’ surging sales are another bonus for the Smashburger program, Lombardi said.
The market share of craft beer, long considered a niche market, has accelerated in the past five years, accounting for 6.7 percent of volume sales in 2012, up from 3.9 percent in 2007, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.
With higher prices, craft beer accounts for about 10 percent of dollars spent on beer, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, adding that craft beers’ share of sales is even higher at bars and restaurants, as much as 15 percent.
“Local brewers grew out of the slow-food movement,” Shepard said. “For fast-food chains to partner with local crafts, it’s kind of a no-brainer at this point.”
A concern for Goose Island
Two years after being acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, Goose Island is no longer a craft beer — at least by definition.
According to the Brewers Association, a brewer may sell up to 25 percent of its business to a company that is not a craft brewer. That means Boston Brewing Co., the maker of Sam Adams, is a craft brewer, but Goose Island is not.
But do customers care?
Mark Hegedus, senior director of marketing at Goose Island, acknowledged that it has been a concern.
“We talked to a lot of our fans in Chicago last summer and asked: ‘Where do we stand with you?’ he said. “They said: ‘We looked at it initially, we checked to make sure you were doing the same things you were before, and we’ve been trying the beers and we think the quality is just as good, if not better.'”
Brewmaster Brett Porter said Goose Island has been working hard to ensure the consistency of certain beers, something it had had problems with before the merger. The company is in the midst of a three-year study of Matilda and why the flavor changes in the bottle.
Porter said having access to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s technology in St. Louis has made it faster and easier to analyze samples that would otherwise be sent to an outside lab.
“One of the great things about being partnered with A-B is that there are pockets of enthusiasm there, and they’re very narrow pockets … people are so interested in particular subjects,” he said. “And for generalist beer-makers like us, we learn a lot very quickly.”