Technology for "Smart" Bartenders

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, Contributing Editor | April 08, 2014

It wasn’t that long ago that bar operators were shaking kegs to see how much beer was left and high-end restaurants were printing and reprinting heavy, multi-page wine lists to provide to their patrons. How times have changed, as today both bar operators and patrons are benefitting from the wide range of options for automating both back-of-house and customer-facing operations.
SD26 (www.sd26ny.com) was one of the first restaurants to adopt technology to manage its wine offerings, according to owner Tony May. The restaurant uses Incentient (www.incentient.com) for its wine and cocktail lists, putting the inventory on guest-facing iPads and touchscreens. The restaurant bar features an Italian-imported Enomatic (www.enomatic.com) wine system, keeping a dozen wines at their optimal temperature through a nitrogen-based preservation system that ensures that every glass tastes like the first glass from the bottle. In addition, the Enomatic system also allows guests to serve themselves, choosing from one-, three- or five-ounce pours that allow them to sample a variety of wines. The tri-level restaurant opened in New York City’s Madison Square Park North in 2009, and introduced the technology from the time the doors opened for the first customer.

May says that the younger clientele that frequent SD26 are native to the technology and they love it. “With 750 to 1,000 labels you’d need a book that’s three or four pounds and you’d continually have to redo it,” says May. “It’s just not really convenient when you can just look at an iPad and get the entire wine list and a lot more explanation for the wines you want to try.”
RFID reduces lost revenue

Barrel Republic (www.barrelrepublic.com) is a self-service craft beer bar in Pacific Beach, Calif., that launched in November 2013. The bar offers 44 taps for customers who serve themselves through the use of iPourIt (www.ipouritinc.com) technology. The system allows customers to pour their own beer using a radio frequency identification (RFID) wristband. The wristband contains a special wireless RFID chip that tracks the beer poured by a tenth of an ounce. Customers simply tap the wristband, open the tap and pay for what they pour.

“The RFID technology helps to reduce waste and theft and helps my bar stand apart from the conventional,” says owner Dave Pike. In addition, he explains, “the technology gives my employees more time to speak with customers about our diverse beer selection and food pairings as they’re not having to pour each beer for each customer.” The benefits, he says, include uniqueness, efficiency and a sense of novelty that customers really enjoy.

The system also keeps a record of the beers tasted so customers can rate them online at their convenience and bar owners can use the data to determine what products are most popular among their patrons.

Inventory efficiency
While pour technology is popular for many bars and restaurants, other operators choose to go a different route. For Tim Riley, beverage director for Bagby Restaurant Group (www.bagbyrestaurantgroup.com) in Baltimore, it’s all about efficiency. Riley operates with a small staff and says, “I personally oversee the beverage program for five different restaurants, so anything I can do in terms of being able to maximize my personal efficiency, and also see and manage my inventory, is
really important.”     

Bagby uses the AccuBar beverage inventory (www.accubar.com) system. Using mobile devices, staff members can scan the barcodes on the labels of liquor, beer and wine bottles (or any other item a restaurant may have in inventory), and collect counts to simplify the tracking of physical inventory. The system can be used in banquet and event consumption, large wine cellars, cost of goods and more. Handhelds synchronize wirelessly with a PC to send encrypted files to the back-end system where data can be analyzed. Staff benefit from the automation as well. There’s no more back and forth to check on a product that may no longer be available. Riley points out that the AccuBar system has allowed staff to “go home and literally study the list by clicking the wines and reading the descriptions.”

Despite the high upfront costs of purchasing a large number of iPads, Riley says the investment has been worth it. “We upload all of the products we receive and we’re able to track them,” he notes. “The system links to our point-of-sale system, so we’re able to track use, potential thefts and waste.” That, he says, is the main benefit. A close second, though, is the ability to store a very large wine list—almost 700 wines—for display on iPads, a big benefit for both servers and customers.

Printed wine lists can be cumbersome and easily outdated. With a system like AccuBar, says Riley, he’s able to quickly add new items, remove items that have been depleted, and include information, including his own personal tasting notes, to help customers make choices. “I’ve written personal descriptions for three-quarters of the wines,” Riley admits. He’s also uploaded pictures of the labels. “It offers so much more that you could never have on paper.”
While technology has definitely boosted efficiency and helped cut costs, a focus on the customer is still critical, says Shawn Rao, the owner of Social House (www.socialhouseaddison.com), based in Dallas. Rao maintains that, for customer facing services, the personal touch is still his preference.

With 100 beers on tap, Rao needed a reliable system to keep track of inventory and provide consistent quality to patrons. His focus, though, has more of a back-of-the-house impact than a customer-facing impact. “We feel the human touch is, ultimately, the best thing, but as far as efficiency goes and being able to do things in a condensed timeframe, it’s just a no-brainer,” he says. The cost savings definitely have an impact as well he says. “If you can save three to four percent it can add up to thousands of dollars in savings.”

Customers also benefit, says Rao, from consistency in pour and quality. “It’s a better product for the guest,” he says. There’s no worry about too much foam or “head” on a beer and, in addition, the temperature is a consistent 32 degrees. “To give a consistent product in this day and age when there are so many options is very important.”

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