America Needs More Boozy Taco Bells
Young weekend partiers in the U.S. usually follow a precise formula. First comes the drinking, then the dancing, then the debauchery, and then a bit more drinking for good measure. And then-to borrow a phrase from a certain corporation-comes the “fourth meal.” This is when partiers exit the bars and satiate their post-midnight buzz with cheap, greasy fast food. Taco Bell has long been a popular destination for this, and now plans to capitalize on it by serving alcohol. This idea could satisfy a genuine consumer need, and be imitated by similar chains.
Earlier this summer, the renowned Mexican-style chain, which is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands Inc., announced it would open a branch that serves alcohol in Wicker Park, a gentrifying northwestern Chicago neighborhood. It will be on Milwaukee Avenue, a nightlife-heavy corridor, and will sell beer, wine, and frozen mixed drinks alongside its tacos and gorditas.
This decision is part of a broader rebranding effort to attract Millennials. The chain recently announced that it would stop using artificial colors and flavors in food. And this Wicker Park store will be retrofitted to look more urban, with exposed bricks and local artists’ murals, mirroring similar Taco Bells in prominent foreign cities like Tokyo. The company will later open another alcohol-serving branch in San Francisco’s blossoming SoMa neighborhood.
As the hip urban aesthetic continues to allure young Americans, this strategy is being explored by other fast food chains. In 2010, for example, Burger King began a comparable line called the “Whopper Bar,” which offers alcohol and an open-view grill. One such bar is in South Beach, across the bay from where I live, and caters to nightlifers spilling from Ocean Drive. Other chains like Sonic, Chipotle and Starbucks SBUX -0.2% have dabbled in alcohol sales. But the concept remains rare: certain niche chains like Shake Shack and Baja Fresh serve alcohol, but better-known ones have pursued this in only select cities. This can be contrasted, say, from Europe, where it is common for fast food joints-including American ones-to serve alcohol.
Why has America trailed? For those familiar with the nation’s politics, especially in big cities, the answer is straightforward. Between government regulators, NIMBYs, and businesses who dislike competition, this country has a lot of prudish people, and nothing works up their neuroses quite like alcohol laws. Depending on the city or state, there are heavy controls on when, where, how much, and from whom one can buy alcohol, and the costs of vendor licenses can be excessive. Chicago has long maintained this prohibitive mentality-only recently did it allow happy hour specials in bars-and Taco Bell’s decision faced resistance from the neighborhood and the local ward boss. Other attempts nationwide by fast food chains to sell alcohol have been criticized by watchdog groups like the Marin Institute, which believes it will encourage overly-fast consumption. Because of this resistance, the Taco Bell in Chicago must hire a bouncer and stop serving drinks at midnight.
It is unclear why these limitations would exist, though, in a city where many bars close at 5am. Whether alcohol is being served at a bar, restaurant, party, or even a church function, the implication is that it should be consumed responsibly, and not in a way that endangers others. As long as fast food chains commit to this, then the same rules should apply to them that apply to bars. But if Wicker Park’s Taco Bell proves to be safe and successful, then maybe it will enjoy leniency, and the business model will spread. That way, U.S. consumers can finally have a beer with their late-night fast food.
Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book about reviving U.S. cities through Market Urbanism. His work is found at BigCitySparkplug.com.