Restaurant beverage systems are as varied as drink options themselves.

Food may be the focus for most restaurants, but beverages are crucial to running an effective establishment, too. Drink selections should match the feel and quality of the food, and serving them should be fast, easy, and sanitary. Meeting all those standards means choosing the right restaurant beverage system.

Beverage systems come in many forms, from beer taps to wine fridges to self-service soda fountains. In many cases, restaurants will use more than one to meet their varying needs, but there’s no single solution that’s ideal for every use case. Restaurant owners must find what works best for them and following this eight-step guide can help accomplish just that.

1. Determine Customer Needs

Virtually everything in a restaurant should revolve around the customer, so the first step in finding the best restaurant beverage system is determining what customers want.

If speed and convenience are the establishment’s key selling points, self-service soda fountains may be ideal. Conversely, a restaurant aiming for an air of quality may want to focus on draft beer and chilled wine, which patrons are likely unable to get at home.

It’s also important to consider average customer volumes to avoid slow service. Remember, 68 percent of restaurant patrons expect to get their orders in less than 30 minutes, so speed is important. Busier restaurants should get systems with more taps or syrup lines.

2. Consider What Beverages to Offer

Similarly, restaurants must consider which specific beverages to offer. Start with the basics: alcoholic vs. non-alcoholic drinks, mixed drinks vs. beer and wine, and soda vs. tea and lemonade. Different beverage systems are compatible with different drinks, so these decisions narrow an establishment’s choices.

Brand choices are also crucial, especially for alcoholic beverages. Many consumers rank brands as important or very important for beer and wine, so offering familiar names is a good idea. Soda choices matter, too, as not every soft drink is compatible with every system.

3. Find a Water Filtering Solution

One easily overlooked but still critical factor for restaurant beverage systems is water quality. Just as citrus flavors and premium raw materials can counteract unwanted notes in a drink, the water in a system has a substantial impact on taste. Even if a restaurant has high-quality beverage syrups, water with too many contaminants may leave them tasting metallic or dirty.

Many soft drink fountain models have in-line water filters. Look for these options and look through reviews to ensure these filtration systems work well. In some cases, buying a separate water purification system may be more cost-effective or reliable, so restaurants should look at all their options.

4. Weigh Different Cooling Options

How a system cools the beverages is also important to consider. Draft beer systems are easier to keep cool than bottle refrigerators, but they’re more expensive. Wine cellars are low-maintenance but more expensive to install than a wine fridge.

Some soft drink fountains use ice dispensers and a cold plate to cool the drinks, which is often cost-effective and easy to maintain, but it’s less consistent than a separate mechanical cooling system. Be sure to check manufacturer specifications to learn how long it takes a mechanical system to chill the beverages.

5. Calculate a Budget

Once restaurants know their customers’ needs and how to meet them, it’s easier to determine a working budget. Higher upfront costs often translate to lower ongoing expenses, so it’s important to weigh these factors when budgeting a restaurant beverage system.

More casual but higher-volume restaurants may want to aim for cheaper options to keep consumer prices low while leaving room to buy extra machines in the future. Conversely, higher-end, quality-focused establishments may find it better to pay more for a more reliable or highly functional system.

6. Estimate Ongoing Needs

When considering budgets and looking through available options, restaurants should be careful not to overlook upkeep. Some beverage systems require more maintenance than others or may be more complicated to repair. These ongoing needs can make an otherwise affordable solution less cost-effective in the long run.

Relatedly, consider how much work a given system takes to operate. With many restaurants facing hiring and retention challenges, less involved systems like self-service stations may be ideal.

Be sure to consider operations outside the actual pouring of beverages, too. Cold plate systems require more frequent ice refills than a separate mechanical cooling system, which may be unideal for restaurants with low staffing levels and high customer volumes.

7. Compare Providers

After weighing all these factors, restaurant owners should have at least a rough idea of their ideal beverage system. However, that doesn’t mean they should find and buy one immediately. Instead, they should compare several sellers that offer the models they want to find the best deal.

Different providers may have varying prices for the same equipment, and some may also offer services like installation and maintenance. It’s also worth looking at what other systems each company provides. If a provider has multiple things a restaurant needs, they may be able to get a bulk discount.

Be sure to check warranties and shipping and return policies, too. It may be best to pay a higher premium on a beverage system to get a longer warranty or service guarantee.

8. Don’t Be Afraid of Change

Finally, owners should understand that the best restaurant beverage system today may not be the best tomorrow. Part of accepting that is looking for relatively future-proof options, like solutions that are easy to scale up, but it also means being ready to switch to an alternate system if necessary.

The restaurant industry heavily depends on consumer preferences and trends, which shift dramatically at times. Consider how in-person dining has made a significant comeback after falling largely out of favor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This sector changes rapidly, so what worked for an establishment in the past may not in the future.

Making the most of a beverage system also means knowing when it’s time to change. Owners should keep an eye on customer trends to catch shifting preferences early and meet changing needs as they emerge.

The Right Restaurant Beverage System Makes a Big Difference

Restaurant beverage systems are as varied as drink options themselves. If establishments hope to offer the best dining experience they can, they need to consider how these solutions impact customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, and overall budgets.

Following these eight steps will help any restaurant owner find the right beverage system for their needs. They can then make the most of every aspect of their customer experience.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over five years experience writing for the food and beverage industry.

Bar Management, Beverage, Expert Takes, Feature