When customers walk into Tapster, the newly opened pour-it-yourself bar in Chicago, they receive an RFID-enabled tap card (which is linked to their credit card) that allows them to sample any of the bar’s 62 taps.
Everything—including beer, wine, cocktails, kombucha, craft sodas and cold-brew coffee—is priced by the ounce (from 60 cents for beer, up to $1.90 for some cocktails). Instead of bellying up to the bar and asking for a drink, customers sidle up to the taps and pour their own.
A number of self-serve bars have opened recently or plan to launch soon, all part of the growing trend of frictionless service in the restaurant industry. So, what are some of the things to keep in mind when going the bartenderless route?
1. Check the rules
2. Don’t let self-serve = over-served
If consumers have unfettered access to alcohol, it stands to reason that they may go overboard. But most of the dispensing systems have some built-in protections. At Tapster, drinkers’ cards become inactive after they’ve consumed two full servings of alcohol (32 ounces of beer, for example, and far less for wine or cocktails). To reactive the card, customers must talk to a staff member. “They quickly assess to see if you’re OK to have more,” Tapster co-founder Roman Maliszewski says.
Plus, he notes, it likely requires less coordination to approach a bartender and ask for another round than to swipe a card, find a glass and pour your own drink. “If you’re drunk, it’s not really the easiest thing to do,” Maliszewski says.
3. Offer a range of price points
At W.I.N.O., a pour-your-own wine bar in New Orleans, the 120 taps range from $1 to $25 per ounce, according to owner Bryan Burkey. The bar, which has been in business for a decade, offers the largest number of wines in the $3-$4 range. Those are wines that would retail for $35-$50 per bottle. “That’s out of most people’s, ‘Oh, I’ll just buy a bottle range,’” Burkey says. “Here, they can try four or five and still keep the bill around $20.”
4. Respect the dishwasher (and bussers, too)
At Tapster, patrons are asked to take a fresh glass for each pour. Those tulip glasses, pint glasses, rocks glasses, wine glasses and Mason jars quickly start to add up. “One of our most important positions here is the busser,” Maliszewski say. Tapster uses a pooled-tips system so everyone cashes out with the same amount at night’s end.
5. Work the education angle
Taps should be labeled with information to explain what’s inside, from tasting notes to sourcing intel. In addition, W.I.N.O. hosts professional education courses in wine, as well as one-night sessions just for fun. “It’s a way to bring some more people in on a Tuesday,” Burkey says.
At Tapster, there’s a large mural that depicts how to properly pour beer. The instructions are also posted on each tap and on the back of each tap card. But Maliszewski spends much of each night teaching customers the proper pour. (Tapster’s flow meters only measure liquid, not foam; so bad pourers typically don’t get charged much, if anything, for their mistake.)
7. Consider all profit possibilities
Classes, such as those offered at W.I.N.O., are one extra revenue opportunity. W.I.N.O. also sells bottles of most of its tap wines. Tapster plans to add a breakfast menu soon to accommodate the day-drinking crowd (as well as those interested in self-serve kombucha and cold brew).
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.