Are we bidding goodbye to the days of pouring out your troubles to the neighborhood barkeep? As self-service technology eases its way into the hospitality business, a few daring entrepreneurs are willing to exchange customer intimacy for efficient and increased sales.
Case in point is Tapped, a suburban St. Louis self-serve bar where 48 taps of self-service beer, wine and even cold-pressed coffee are the stars. Using a system from iPourit, owners Ryan and Lindsay Reel converted a former pizza parlor into a modern taproom where customers use an IoT bracelet to sample the various beverages. All but one beer are from Missouri or Illinois and, in keeping with the heritage of the former pizza joint, Tapped serves pizza and desserts from a local bakery.
The iPourit technology excels in such a setting because it facilitates the tasting experience in a rather seamless manner. A customer is given a special bracelet when her or she enters (after giving a credit card for a tab) and then taps their device on a special screen to taste each beer. The screens offer additional information about the beers on tap, and just to keep things slightly human, Ryan Reel and another staffer are on hand for expert advice.
Featured on CNBC’s Billion Dollar Buyer, the company squared off against casino/restaurant magnate Tilman Fertitta’s traditional bar. The upstart not only outsold the standard-issue model by 4x, but the reaction from customers was uniformly positive. iPourit, based in Lake Forest, Calif., operates on a business model in which it receives one cent per ounce of beverage sold, with a base cost of $1,200 per tap for basic installation. The company’s clients include zPizza in Arizona, North Carolina and California, and Marriott hotels in Orlando and Baltimore.
While the iPourit system is on target for clients such as Tapped and other high volume establishments, the self-service model can fall flat on its face in the wrong setting and with the wrong product.
Case in point, Soma, a Portland-based kombuchery, who is experimenting with a self-service kombucha bar in Southeast Portland. Soma, a popular kombucha brand, added the self-service branch to its main speakeasy location earlier this year. The reaction to this odd implementation of technology has been, at best, lukewarm.
“I would gladly have settled for yet another f****ng coffee shop with succulents and taxidermy over this monstrosity,” wrote Portland Mercury’s Megan Burbank.
Aside from the fact that kombucha does not lend itself to a self-service model, the newest Soma taproom uses a funky mix of technology including an ATM-like contraption at the door. To enter the building, a customer must swipe his or her credit card. There are no store personnel in sight with only placards and other customers to advise newbies on how the system works. Tastings are a free for all where individuals can gorge themselves on free kombucha—albeit in small cups—without buying anything. To make a purchase, there are keypads to select cups, bottles or growlers for your kombucha. After a perplexing half hour in Soma’s experimental shop, it’s safe to say that technology works best when it enhances, not confuses, the customer’s experience.
iPourit is not alone in its attempt to automate the beer dispensing experience. Pour My Beer, is a direct competitor. Meanwhile, some individual bars, such as Red Arrow Taproom near Chicago, use their own technology to offer 48 craft beers available through what it calls a “pour pass.”