When I first heard of Robot Pub technology, I found myself feeling relieved. At last, the technology had arrived that could alleviate the chore of queuing in a bar, my least favourite pub activity (closely followed by paying London prices for a pint). However, some people, particularly bartenders, might worry that this outbreak of self-serve pubs is the beginning of the end for those working behind the bar, a technology that could make them obsolete.
With a mixed bag of emotions I decided to get to the bottom of this, to discover if this pull-your-own-pints business is just a fad, or the start of a revolution. I went to two London bars recently kitted out by self-serve technology, and chatted to the co-founder of Robot Pub Group, Ali Rees.
The Lazy Fox
Located in the southwest London sprawl of Fulham, this pub may be a little tricky to get to with no direct tube station, but the journey is worth the effort. As soon as you enter, you are greeted by the sight of an eight tap beer wall, glistening in the mid morning sun – a beautiful sight to any beer lover. The Lazy Fox holds the title for being the first pub in the UK with a self-serve beer wall, so this was the perfect place to start my research.
Did it work?
The Lazy Fox seemed to have everything in order, when I asked at the bar the girl working there took my bank card, came over and patiently explained how everything worked, finally handing me the all important tab card. From the dizzying array of taps, I could have as little or as much as I wanted, with the measurements of how much I had poured displayed above each tap.
The Lazy Fox also excelled in its choice of beer and cider. Many of the taps provided lesser known, local or craft brews, making the ‘Beer Wall’ an exciting experience worth talking about. The tab card even worked on the two self-service tables to the right of the bar, which offer up the perfect cosy cubby-hole for a group of friends. When I decided to move on, I went to the bar, paid what was on the bill and left. So far so good Robot Pub.
The Thirsty Bear
Located in the financial district of Blackfriars, my girlfriend and I were worried that the bar might not even be open on a Saturday, with so much of that district closed over the weekend. Upon sighting the pub, we realised it was well-and-truly open for business, and was teeming with football fans supporting the Arsenal vs Sunderland match. This would be a true test of Robot Pub’s capabilities.
Did it work?
My personal experience of The Thirsty Bear was unfortunately a little disappointing. Every single table in the bar has a self-serve tap, along with an iPad where you can order food, smash out some karaoke tunes or even order drinks straight to the table. This is by far the most ambitious tech-bar I have ever visited. The sheer scale of the construction is almost mind boggling. Such an ambitious project was always going to initally struggle, faced with uncountable challenges.
In my opinion what let the pub down was all the little things. When I asked how to use the table-top beer taps, I was asked to provide not only my bank card but also a photo ID to leave behind the bar in exchange for a tab card. I felt it was a little inconvenient to ask for an ID but I handed it over, and after a confused exchange on what to do (the girl who served me was new and untrained) I was finally handed my tab card. The card didn’t work, so I had to queue at the bar again to tell the bartender the problem, by now I have been in the bar around 10 minutes and queued at the bar twice.
When the girl behind the bar finally got the card working I was excited to play around with the iPad on the table, scrolling through the food sections and looking at the karaoke selection. When I poured my pint however, I was let down again. The beer was completely flat. I queued at the bar a third time to let the bartender know, who promptly poured me a fresh pint from the bar (stealing my chance of a self-poured pint) and promised to change the barrel for the tap at my table, which he never did.
As for the beer itself, you would hope that a bar as modern as this might serve some unique beer on tap. However, The Thirsty Bear is unfortunately restricted on what beer it can sell due to its status as a tied house (owned in part by a brewery and required sell some of its beer) as opposed to a free house where owners are free to choose their beer freely.
It would be unfair for me to compare a quiet pub in Fulham at 2pm to a bustling inner city pub during a Premier League game, but the simple fact is that one self-serve bar made my life easier, and one definitely didn’t.
So, if you’re seeking a cosy retreat and craft beer, head to The Lazy Fox. For a buzzing atmosphere and classic beers on tap head to The Thirsty Bear, simples.
Robot Pub Group Co-Founder, Ali Rees
Considering there can clearly be a divide in terms of service, Ali shares some light on how popular pull-your-own-pint bars currently are:
“We have a fair number of installations now,” Ali explains. “We don’t like to say exactly how many, but we’re now in Asia, Europe and the US with some very near term installs planned for Israel, Australia and RSA to name a few.”
As for jobs, it seems that taking jobs are the last thing on Robot Pubs agenda.
“One of the most recent installs we did in Wales generated a lot of interest but one big misconception that came out was that we were after bar staffs jobs,” Ali tells us. “Which is total and utter nonsense as we have two sites ourselves where staff requirements increased to accommodate the extra interest for the system and to deliver food and drink to the customers table.”
Robot Pubs Group are showing no signs of slowing down, seeking to grow the business as much as possible.
“We are expanding rapidly and globally,” Ali notes. “Our targets are to maintain our position as the leading self service beer company and to increase our UK presence.
“We are also moving into a very exciting space and working on a joint (mobile) venture which to our knowledge will be a world first. I can’t say much more but we will be announcing details very shortly.”
You remember when Blockbuster Video store started stocking DVD’s (showing my age here) and everyone was like, ‘that will never catch on, I’ll stick with VHS thank you,’ this is exactly like that.
My personal prediction? This is the future, the natural evolution of modern bars and pubs in London and around the world. While many might say self-serve is just a fad, an attraction to draw people in, you shouldn’t also forget that what Robot Pub Group are offering is touch screen technology. The ability to have everything you want brought to you without ever having to leave the table.
There will always be bartenders, but for beer, wine and other easily tapped alcoholic drinks this is a way to get a drink quickly. The world is constantly finding solutions to problems, and with the emergence of pull-your-own-pint technology, waiting at the bar may become a thing of the past.
As Ali Rees eloquently states: “For us the system is about keeping the customer from waiting, keeping the publican from losing business and freeing up staff to focus on those who just want a good old fashioned pint poured for them!”