Joseph Tota, founder and CEO of Tapville Social, sees technology in the future of the restaurant industry. His three restaurants in Chicagoland feature self-service beer walls and automated ordering from tablets. There are no traditional bartenders; instead, staff guide guests as they use the systems and make their selections.
“We’re like a tech company that serve beers and food,” says Tota, whose franchise concept will open nine new locations this year. “We can serve guests faster, more efficiently at a lower cost.”
Self-pour systems have progressed substantially in the last decade or so since the technology was introduced to the U.S. market. While it isn’t catching on as rapidly as some predicted, there is steady adoption across the country, including by some major national chains.
“Beer walls have become very popular now,” says Jeff Libby, founder and president of Table Tap. His automated beer company broke $2 million in revenue last year and plans to double that this year. In addition to Table Tap, two other purveyors, iPourIt and PourMyBeer, have emerged as major players in the U.S. “We’re finally seeing some of the change. Business is booming more than it ever has,” Libby adds.
As demand for beer walls increases, a few trends have emerged as priorities for the automation purveyors: ensuring high-quality customer interactions; delivering high-volume operations; integrating self-pour into restaurants and other non-bar venues; and expanding into newly legalized markets.
In an industry that values personal connections, some restaurants and bars have been apprehensive as to whether automation would feel less welcoming and thus diminish the dine-in experience.
“There has to be an aspect of hospitality within the guest experience; that’s why people go out,” Tota says. “Because we have technology that makes it easier for guests and easier for our staff, it allows guests to focus on the social interaction.”
At Walters, a sports bar next to Nationals Park baseball stadium in Washington, D.C., staff help customers use the self-pour system and advise them on the beers. They are not bartenders so much as beer educators, and that’s how owner Jeremy Gifford thinks it should be.
“Where I don’t think [self-pour] works is to let the customer go at it with no help. That’s not what we do in the restaurant business; we’re about customer service,” he says.
Instead, Gifford sees technology as an enhancement to a high-quality customer experience, not a replacement for it. He pays his staff at the self-pour taps—even more than typical bartender wages—to share deep knowledge about things like hop varietals, yeast strains, and brewing styles. “I don’t think the pouring of beer out of a tap is so amazing that you can build your business around that,” he says. “But you can build it around education about beer and leave the physical pouring to the customer.”
Self-pour technology is particularly useful in high-volume operations like sports bars and casual-dining restaurants. As Gifford points out, even if a bar has a dozen bartenders, they can only pour a dozen drinks at a time, maximum. On the other hand, a wall of two dozen beers can do that much business simultaneously without a bartender.
Automated technology boasts another, inherent financial perk. Unlike a typical bar where servers offer complimentary samples, self-serve systems tabulate pours by the ounce, meaning customers pay for each sample.
“People try three or four beers before they make a decision about what they’ll stick with for the night,” Gifford says. “As an operator, I’ve just sold half to three-quarters of a beer before I’ve even sold a whole beer.”
Despite the potential perks of self-pour, the fledgling technology has faced pushback. For some, the debate centers on jobs and whether these automated systems would put people out of work.
Others worry about over-consumption and underage drinking, although advocates argue that self-pour reduces these occurrences. The taps are activated by RFID cards, which customers only receive after an ID check. Patrons then use the card to pour out the equivalent of two beers—32 ounces—before they must check in with staff. This system gives operators up-to-the-minute knowledge of how much customers are drinking.
Still, some states have such complex distribution and retail laws that navigating the legality of a newfangled technology is virtually impossible.
Forty-five states and D.C. have now legalized use of these systems, with Texas being the most recent addition last July. The jury is still out in Connecticut, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Vermont.
Many restaurants that have embraced self-pour technology have increased revenue and sped up service. Beer walls also provide a more interactive experience that has customer appeal. Automated systems may not be right for every venue, but it’s likely that diners will become increasingly used to self-serve beer walls as they dine out.
“This tech is here to stay,” Tota says. “And it’s the future of the restaurant industry.”