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A Shot in the Dark! Some Musings on Beverage Control

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October 01, 2001
Foodservice | Technology
Ed Rubinstein

© 2001 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction or transmission without written permission.

Have you ever tried pouring a shot in the dark? How about mixing martinis or cosmopolitans in a bustling front- and back-bar with dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music?


Yes, I admit it. I have this hair-brained habit of tending bar on occasion for a friend who owns a Big Apple catering business. Hey, I’m a hospitable guy who likes to see people having fun. Plus, the repeat customers tend to laugh at my jokes and love me more when I over pour.

Tending bar is analogous to a restaurant coming up with its theoretical food costs. They are inexact sciences, but have to be controlled without compromising guest service.

When it comes to controlling beverage portions, the number of choices for operators has spiked as swaths of companies market nifty portion control programs that help casual restaurants, bars, hotel lounges and even gentlemen’s clubs manage their inventories. They discourage over-pouring and unauthorized buybacks and can actually help operators recoup some of their pour costs. But do they counter the effects of hospitality businesses in their efforts to be, well, hospitable? My ambivalent answer is yea and nay.
Some beverage control solutions are quite complex and take up back-of-the-bar space. Beverages traverse from centralized pumping stations to automated bar dispensing machines. Others are rather prosaic in which booze bottles, beer kegs and other alcoholic urns are weighed every week and compared to register receipts.

Back in the early 1990s, a high-tech portion control system was introduced by San Francisco-based BarMate, which used wireless LANs and microchips that are embedded into the spouts of bar bottles to measure served amounts and to ring them up at the point-of-sale. The system was nifty, but pricey. The company has since changed gears and evolved into a B-to-B booze purchasing Web site. A similar wireless and embedded chip version, called Link Beverage Tracker, is now being peddled by another Bay area shop, VitalLink Business Systems.

Of course, some services are less automated and more usage-related than others. For example, Toronto-based Bevinco says its weighing and bottle-marking service has little to do with inventory control, but everything to do with profit control.

Many years ago, I got a bird’s eye view of how the system works by watching two Bevinco reps weigh and measure all the liquor bottles and beer kegs of a New York watering hole one Saturday morning.

The inventory review was rather intimidating to me for two reasons. First, the process resembled an old-fashioned IRS audit because a week’s worth of receipts had to be examined to compare what was served to what was charged. Also, one of the guys was the long lost twin of Corleone “capo” Luca Brazzi from the “Godfather.” I quickly asked my questions during the two-hour process, folded up the notebook and went back to my car where I was greeted with a $55 parking ticket.

Nowadays, technology vendors have to be more pliable and thick-skinned than ever when it comes to fitting their solutions to hospitality operators. Touting its system as flexible is Easybar of Tualatin, Ore., whose beverage solution is used by MGM Casinos, Sheraton and Hilton’s DoubleTree chain. The system can dispense up to 128 alcoholic beverages, an unlimited number of mixed drinks, is accurate to 1/32nd of an ounce, and Easybar is NSF approved. This sounds like a sound and sanitary solution that is ideal for sprawling bars in hotels and casinos.

Other concerns that guarantee higher bar yields are Scannabar of Montreal and Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Precision Pours Inc., who wins the award for the best-named product—The Sure Shot.
In certain instances, however, such solutions can be inhospitable and detrimental to operators. Having tended bar for many years, I would say that upward of 85 percent of customers don’t know what they want when they come up to the bar. What if a customer wants a weak sea breeze? What if a customer only wants a swig to sample of your newest Pinot Noir? And what if a dinner party of 12 that purchased six bottles of your highest-margin Chardonnay wants to sample some of your top shelf port?

You have to give these solution providers credit for taking their “shots” at coming up with highly specialized products that help operators manage their shrinkage. They help operators recoup lost profits, weed out theft and an unquestionable niche in the marketplace. At the same time, I really question whether such scan and deliver technologies and big brother approaches to beverage management will really become widely embraced by hotel, restaurant and other foodservice operators. As hospitality operators, you have to make sure that these solutions are used in conjunction with sound managerial practices. Using such solutions in a vacuum will be like trying to pour a shot in the dark. If the sole purpose of their usage is to control ounces and to vilify employees, your operations, rather than pour costs, will shrink.

Ed Rubinstein is principle of IT-Informant, Inc., a knowledge research and marketing services firm for the hospitality industry. Ed was an area vice president for Aspeon Inc. Prior to that he was editor of Hospitality Technology and technology editor at Nation’s Restaurant News. He can be reached at it-informant@att.net.

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