Waiting in lines at bars might be a small problem, but it’s an annoying one that’s relatively easy to solve. So it’s no surprise that there’s an app for that—or five.
Companies like BuzzTheBar, BarEye, FlowTab, and Coaster have built services for ordering drinks via smartphones. Most of the apps work by routing mobile phone orders to a bartender's iPad and sending a push notification to the customer when they’re ready for pickup—no standing at the bar, waving money in the air, or sticking elbows out necessary. Since users of these apps enter payment info directly as part of registration, they need not even hand over their credit cards to start a tab.
Theoretically, bars can also make more money this way. "Bartenders are actually able to serve quicker," says Richard Liang, who founded BuzzTheBar as a student at Columbia Business School. "If you rip out the point of sale interaction, that’s about 50% of what bartenders currently do—swiping cards, closing tabs, entering individual drink orders into their point of sale systems." Meanwhile, the apps typically earn money by charging bars a percentage of orders they take, selling bars subscriptions to the service, or passing the cost onto the consumer with a small order fee at checkout.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But it’s not really a viable solution for ending your party woes quite yet. Only a handful of establishments use the services, and, without a significant user base, orders at bars that do use them are likely to be ignored.
During a quiet happy hour at a midtown bar called EVR on a Thursday night, BuzzTheBar’s system sat unattended. "I’m going to serve someone who has been standing at the bar forever before I pay attention to tickets," the bartender told me.
Liang has, however, seen his vision in action. When in business school, he was involved with the events committee, which would use BuzzTheBar frequently at bar events. With almost everyone at the parties using the app, bartenders paid attention to the orders and were able to serve quicker. One of the operating partners at EVR tells me the bar was able to run a Columbia event while his usual cash register system wasn’t running.
In order to become this viable everywhere, a large portion of bargoers need to order through an app—the same app. And, thus, a bit of a turf war has begun.
BarEye, which was cofounded by Jets linebacker Johnathan Vilma, has started a "franchise" method in which it sells territories to local entrepreneurs for $2,500 each. BuzzTheBar is hiring a team of campus representatives to sign up bars and users in New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It has reworked its system to integrate directly with bars’ POS systems, so that bartenders don’t need to learn how to use an iPad app—they just pull order tickets from a receipt printer. Other apps have put social spins on the idea. Gratafy, for instance, allows users to give drinks and food to their Facebook friends from anywhere. Recipients give their servers a three-digit code to redeem them.
With the narrow exception of Gratafy, none of these apps has more than 20 venues listed, so it still appears to be anyone’s game. Including the bartenders'. "If the bartender is good, he doesn’t need the app," says the server at EVR. "He can work the whole bar like an orchestra."
[Image: Flickr user Dana Robinson]