Self-service technology is nothing new; just look at the widespread popularity of vending machines, ATMs, and frozen yogurt brands. But the adoption rate of self-serve is steadily pouring over into the full-service restaurant industry, and for good reason. Self-pour beverage walls offer operators labor savings, increased sales and speed of service, inventory control, and also offers customers unique and personalized experiences.
Plus, restaurants can partner with self-serve technology gurus like PourMyBeer and iPourIt to make operations as easy as possible.
There are more than 300 bars, breweries, and eateries using iPourIt technology throughout the U.S., says CEO Chris Braun, and the majority of operators are serving food. iPourIt, based in Lake Forest, California, touts itself as the first self-pour tap wall system to be designed and installed, thus beginning the rise of the self-pour revolution. Though similar in theory to self-serve frozen yogurt since guests can pour as much or as little as they please, iPourIt is more sophisticated and uses RFID technology to limit access to the taps to customers verified to be 21 years or older, plus tracks the ounces poured to create a cumulative bill for each guest throughout the visit.
Operators report an average increase in alcohol sales by 39 percent after installing a self-pour wall, Braun notes. And since every ounce of beer, wine, cider, or any other beverage is tracked and accounted for, waste is greatly reduced; iPourIt operators report an average keg yield of 97 percent, while the average for traditional service in the food and beverage industry hovers around 76 percent, Braun says. “Operators also have access to powerful tools through the operator dashboard like inventory management that shows exactly how much product is in each keg, line-cleaning reports, profit margin by product, automated discounts, and more,” he adds.
An example of one of iPourIt’s operators is Rosie Hanson, co-owner of the recently-opened Garden District Taproom, which is the first self-pour taproom in West Palm Beach, Florida. One of the first places Hanson discovered a self-pour wall was at Oak & Stone in Saint Petersburg, Florida, which is a brewpub serving artisan pizzas, craft beers, and cocktails. “It’s something cool to do while you wait for your food to get out, and you don’t need a server bringing you drinks. I think it’ll do really well in certain concepts,” Hanson says.
With 25 taps, one of Hanson’s favorite parts is the picking process, which began with three wine spots, one nitro, and the remainder of taps featuring all beers. “We’re craft beer lovers, so we know a decent amount and said OK, let’s get a variety of styles so we can see what sells,” she says.
“We try to put things we know to be good on tap. We had a few slow-moving beers, but for the most part, we get a lot of compliments on our selection,” Hanson adds. The number one seller at Garden District Taproom is Yacht Party, a light American Lager style beer brewed by Charles Towne Fermentory in Charleston, South Carolina. Another top-seller is Untitled Art’s Florida Seltzer, which uses real fruit juice like prickly pear and guava. Hazy IPAs and anything fruit-forward is also popular in the craft brew scene, Hanson notes, as well as experimental ones with fun flavors like marshmallow and vanilla. Though wines aren’t as popular—which Hanson chalks up to numerous wine bars within blocks of them in downtown West Palm Beach—having options for non-beer drinkers is still a good play.
“Whenever one keg kicks, you put something different on. Sometimes you have a specific one in mind to put on afterwards, sometimes it’s not concrete. But we’ll try to order our inventory to get us through the next couple weeks in case we’re busier than expected,” she says.
At Can Can Wonderland in St. Paul, Minnesota, a self-pour beer wall with 36 taps complements a full-service bar. The eatertainment mecca offers vintage arcade games, indoor mini golf designed by local artists, and a stage that hosts live music, karaoke and comedy nights, plus drag and burlesque shows. Concession stand-style stalls serve artisan pizza—like The Venetian Boot with marinara, Italian sausage, salami cremini mushroom, onion, mozzarella, and rosemary—as well as sandwiches, Bahn Mi nachos, salads, ice cream treats, and classic snacks and sides like pretzels and fries.
With the whimsical atmosphere at Can Can Wonderland, seltzers and ciders are popular choices at the self-serve wall, says Sarah McDonough, general manager, whose personal favorite is a locally-brewed sour called Super Squishy by Oliphant Brewing, which comes in blackberry, raspberry, or coconut. “It’s just like the State Fair—people want to try the mini donut one, or we have a cotton candy seltzer we make at Saint Paul Brewing that flies out the door,” she adds.
On the flip side, being a family-friendly establishment versus a typical bar setting that only allows people over 21 means special safeguards must be put in place for a self-pour wall.
“The biggest thing is to make sure you have that attendant at all times and systems in place so no one is over-served. Because we’re kid-friendly as well, we have wristbands and check that,” McDonough says. Customers are capped at 32 ounces, but can come back to the attendant to reissue more ounces to pour if they don’t appear intoxicated. Plus, all IDs are checked at the door when people pay, and wristbands make it clear who is over 21 and who isn’t.
Rob Clapp, co-founder and CFO of Can Can Wonderland, was originally inspired to look into implementing a self-serve beer wall when lines were causing a 10- to 15-minute wait for people to get a beer, which started having a negative impact on reviews. “We currently use the PourMyBeer system, and so far they’ve been great for us. It’s all about being able to have those 36 taps to take a lot of pressure off that main bar,” he says.
Educating consumers on how to correctly and efficiently pour drinks is a key area attendants should be trained in. “In the beginning, we definitely had a situation where a lot of people were unfamiliar, and they were pouring foam-heavy beers,” Clapp recalls. “Have good people running it to make sure you get a quality output for your guest. Otherwise, you will get a lot of bad pours and people will think they’re getting ripped off.”
Can Can Wonderland built the self-pour wall and cooler into a shipping container, then commissioned two local artists to paint graffiti murals on three sides to give it a cool aesthetic that fit the vibe of the eatertainment place.
“The opportunities are literally endless to showcase art in the space. The weirder, the more exotic, it doesn’t matter because we’re not held within a box, and that’s the coolest spot to be in,” adds McDonough.
Just eight miles east of Can Can Wonderland in Minneapolis is First Draft + Burnt Chicken, another self-pour, pay-by-the-ounce establishment featuring 54 taps of beer, wine, cider, cocktails, and kombucha. Established in 2018, First Draft is owned by Andrew Valen, who, similar to Can Can Wonderland, also likes to source drinks locally from Minnesotan brewers and distilleries, and recently set up a full-serve bar. “I think people like self-pour and I think there’s a niche for it, but I also believe that there’s a desire for that more traditional bar offering,” Valen says.
“When it comes to service at a self-pour taproom, of course our labor is a little less, but not to the degree people thought, especially when we first opened,” he continues. “We got some serious criticism right away that we were trying to eliminate the service industry, which is far from the truth. Part of the reason we’re adding a bar is to have people that are engaging people at the taps to talk about what they may like, and what might pair well with food.”
Valen seeks to differentiate First Draft by emphasizing it’s not just a beer wall. One of the most popular taps is a Moscow Mule, he notes, and other top sellers include seltzers, ciders, and even non-alcoholic choices. “Let’s give people the ability to visit a hub for local craft beer, but let’s be more than that and not limit ourselves to the beer place, since not everyone likes just that,” Valen says.
“Margins are very difficult and slim in the restaurant industry, so if we can just cut a little bit and save some money in a few different areas, it makes the viability of the restaurant much stronger,” Valen adds.