Get a Drink, with the Push of a Button

Late last year, before its notable takeover of Whole Foods, Amazon revealed a grocery store of its own design. The prototype in Seattle, called Amazon Go, epitomized the company’s dedication to simple shopping by using computer surveillance instead of human employees, so items could be purchased using an Amazon account card without the need to consult another person.

While it didn’t take long for the in-store system to be tricked, Amazon Go ushered familiar dystopian warnings of “the machines” taking over, and human labor becoming obsolete. Now with Whole Foods under their arm — and an alleged goal of opening upwards of 2,000 Amazon Go stores — this future seems closer than ever before.

Now with the technology (almost) in place and a public interest, it seems natural that restaurants and bars would also anticipate this type of automation. What if instead of haggling a busy bartender for a gin and tonic, you could push a button, have your card charged, and spend more time talking with friends than leaning over a sticky bar-top?

In July, Navigator Taproom embraced this logic in Logan Square with a self-service bar. Eater’s Ashok Selvam described the process:

“Trade a credit card for a tap card at the host stand and then use the new card to dispense beer using touch screens. Guests pay for their drinks the end of their visit when they retrieve their credit card.”

Though Navigator uses software developed by Pour My Beer — startup that began in 2008 which sought to avoid the bartender-customer conundrum with high-tech taps — human beings are (fortunately) still necessary. After two adult beverages, the tap card needs to be re-authorized, so as to avoid irresponsible behavior and perhaps make sure no one is duping the system. It’s also nice, and arguably necessary, to have someone around to provide expertise on which libation to choose.

Navigator is not Chicago’s first self-serve tap bar; Tapster in Wicker Park uses a similar system for its clientele, and serves up an impressive line-up of 40 drafts, wine, batch cocktails, and even coffee and other non-alcoholic beverages. Both bars also boast a chic, sleek design, one that implies a comfortable, hip experience despite “amateurs” curating their own pours. In other words, it won’t be like pumping a keg in a fraternity basement.

The potential for this type of drinking experience seems almost endless. While there are obvious pitfalls, like technology maintenance and of course the threat to wonderful bartenders everywhere, the benefits are also clear. Less staff means less overhead and less pressure on customer service especially during large rushes; Perhaps more emphasis can be put on food, ambience, and entertainment when the alcohol is more-or-less, taken care of for the night; And of course the appeal of limited interaction with another person, especially for those who have spent the entire work day courting clients.

Moreover, I wonder if self-serve taps only have a home in trendy, young neighborhoods. I imagine a more traditional beer hall or even sports bar would greatly benefit from this type of system; perhaps you can buy a pitcher at a fixed rate, and then fill it up during Bears time-outs at the drinkers’ leisure? When it’s not your turn in pool, you can walk straight to the nearest tap without much fuss.

It’s an interesting new frontier in the alcohol industry, one that uses new technology to innovate while actually encouraging customers to be more active in their drinking experience.



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