The restaurant landscape is changing. New York City’s landmark Four Seasons closed in June, after an ill-fated reboot, a victim of skyrocketing rent and labor costs. Fine dining classic Le Cirque declared bankruptcy two years ago. In San Francisco and lifestyle destinations such as Napa Valley, the high cost of living is making it difficult for restaurants to hire and retain cooks and servers, driving a change toward automated ordering and self-service.
Food trucks are gourmet, with young chefs testing their concepts and Twitter followers anxiously awaiting the day’s location posting. Pop-up restaurants receive as much buzz as the latest star chef opening. Shopping mall food courts of yore are now upscale food halls. Baseball stadiums feature oyster raw bars and celebrity chefs’ bulgogi twists on a Philly cheesesteak, with craft beers, wines and cocktails on tap or in cans.
As high-end luxury dining struggles, fast-casual is expanding its wine offerings. Not that the likes of Shake Shack will pick up the slack in high-end wine lists, but restaurants in this category can offer a complete dining experience, with wine, beer and cocktails. Fast food isn’t just about fuel and convenience anymore.
That’s the vision of Mark Rosati, culinary director for Shake Shack, the burger chain better known for milkshakes than wine. (It’s in the name, after all.) Shake Shack has more than 250 restaurants in 13 countries, including Mexico, where it opened in Mexico City in June. The house wines there, Shack White and Shack Red, are produced by Lomita winery in Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley. A Mexican artist, Jorge Tellaeche, designed the label.
The partnership with Lomita is the chain’s first foray into sourcing local wines for its own brand. Rosati likens it to the chain sourcing its beef and other ingredients from local farmers.
“People want to know where our beef comes from, or our cheese sauce,” he says. “We take the same care with our wines.”
In the United States, Shake Shack partners with Gotham Project, based in Bayonne, New Jersey. A partnership of French winemaker Charles Bieler and Long Island’s Bruce Schneider, Gotham Project specializes in wines in kegs for restaurants. Shake Shack uses kegs in locations with enough space, but most outlets rely on bottles. The house wines for U.S. restaurants are a red blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah from Washington state, and a sauvignon blanc sourced from various regions around California.
To put the concept to the test, I visited Shake Shack’s Potomac, Maryland, outlet. I ordered the Shack Burger and, because chicken sandwiches are all the rage, the Chicken Shack, along with fries and a glass each of the Shack Red and Shack White. The wines, from kegs, were fresh and fine, served in plastic Govino cups with the restaurant’s logo. Both paired well with the chicken sandwich, while I slightly preferred the red with the burger. These aren’t wines to suss out nuance; they are simply fun and tasty, which was all you need at Shake Shack. And at $8 to $9 for a generous six-ounce pour, they were good values.
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The fast food industry and alcohol have not always mixed well. Burger King offered beer and wine at some outlets, but then it gravitated to its upscale, experimental BK Whopper Bar outlets in a few cities. Starbucks trumpeted its foray into offering wine in 2011, then dropped the concept a few years later. Chipotle offers margaritas and beer at many of its locations.
This market segment makes sense. Wine is moving away from the fascination with luxury cult cabernets, with more emphasis on affordable wines made from various grape varieties in more easygoing styles.
When Shake Shack opened its first location in Manhattan’s Madison Park in 2004, the concept was “American comfort food,” meaning burgers, fries, milkshakes and lemonade. Wine is not a traditional American comfort food. But “wine was in our DNA,” Rosati says, as Shake Shack is part of the Danny Meyer restaurant empire. Rosati joined the company at Gramercy Tavern before moving to take over Shake Shack in 2007 and lead its expansion into a global chain.
During that time, Rosati, now 42, has experienced the changes in how we dine out.
“I got into this business for fine dining,” he says. “There was something about that experience I felt was magical. But today, I don’t get dressed up that often to go out for extravagant meals. We have access to great culinary skill at a modest price point and a casual scale.”
“Fine dining is cost prohibitive, and you have to plan for it,” he continued. “You can’t just go out for a meal like that, with tasting menus and wine pairings, on a whim. Today, you can have delicious food in a great ambiance at an affordable price. My generation, and the one before me, didn’t have that when we were growing up.”
In our interview, Rosati waxed poetic about the variety of cuisine available at a food court near his home in Brooklyn, especially the pierogies. “There’s this guy who does only pierogies, and they are fantastic,” he says.
And of course, he can find a wine to go with that.