As more restaurants test out self-serve taps for beverages from beer to cocktails, some operators are giving customers the opportunity to help themselves to something else: nonalcoholic drinks. Not only can the DIY setup help out servers who are slammed, it often encourages guests to dig into their wallets for additional pours.
“We see the self-serve mode as helping with efficiency and speed of service on higher-volume beverages without losing the ‘craft’ component for the better beverages,” says Brian Darr, managing director of Chicago research company Datassential.
Offering self-serve coffee from urns at a customer-facing beverage station isn’t new. In fact, it’s what most units of Delray Beach, Fla.-based The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. still use for selections of light-, medium- and dark-roasted blends and decaffeinated coffee options.
But a franchised location in Coral Springs, Fla., opened this spring with a 35-foot tap-based coffee system. The Coffee Wall features six self-service hot-coffee taps plus creamers, iced coffee on tap and flavorings. It can accommodate up to 10 guests at once, speeding throughput and tempting curious newcomers.
With the launch of its new prototype in Pearland, Texas, in mid-July, Houston-based Salata introduced a tap system for its cold drinks, featuring five iced teas and three lemonades on tap. Salata always has offered a variety of iced teas and lemonades on its menu, but guests at this customizable-salad fast casual tend to lean toward water as the beverage of choice, says David Laborde, director of product development at Salata.
“Our original intention was to change up the beverage station to make it more enticing and increase sales,” says Laborde. The chain made the new beverage station a focal point of the design, he says, so guests would ask about it, giving the staff an opportunity to talk about it and upsell.
The upgrade was largely aesthetic. “Operationally, it just looks different,” says Laborde. “Basically it’s like tea urns behind a wall, but customized to create a flow system. Fortunately, there was no need for carbonation, but we did need to create gravity flow and make the taps easy to access for cleaning.” Behind the scenes, hoses connect buckets of the beverages to beer taps on the front of the wall. To keep the setup attractive yet accessible, Salata built a large wooden cabinet with hidden doors for easy access.
According to Laborde, the system cost $5,500—$1,500 for the custom cabinet and $4,000 for added woodwork and tap parts (buckets, hoses and such). Future tap systems at Salata will be rear loading so they can be maintained from inside the kitchen, he says.
Beverage prices haven’t changed; the expectation is that the investment will be offset by increased sales of teas and lemonades. The first week saw sales of more than 1,000 iced teas and lemonades, compared to a typical weekly tally of 700 to 800, with a profit of more than $1 per drink, he says.
Laborde is hopeful that the self-serve tap trend will continue strong. During lunchtime on opening day, he introduced himself to two customers and asked if they had noticed anything interesting in the new space. One, a regular at another Houston location, remarked “that tea thing is cool. I normally don’t buy a drink, but I wanted to try it out.” Says Laborde, “That response is exactly what we had in mind when designing the new look.”