Paying in the pub of the future

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We went off to Britain’s first robopub to have a pie and a pint and to watch the Blues demolish West Ham. Oh, and to see next-generation hospitality retailing in action.

By happy coincidence, the evening that we decided to go and try out Britain’s first robopub – The Thirsty Bear in Southwark – solely in the pursuit of retail payments knowledge, and incurred certain entertainment expenses wholly and necessarily in connection with our principal business, was the evening that Manchester City were playing their League Cup semi-final second leg against West Ham. Perfect. We had a lovely pint or two, an excellent helping of haddock and chips with New Labour guacamole (or mushy peas, as the dish is known in the far North) and excellent company and conversation for the night. And as if we couldn’t have made the event even more English had we tried, the footie was live on the big screen in the upstairs lounge.

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The first thing that you will notice about The Thirsty Bear is that the tables have one iPad and two beer taps (one bitter, one lager) on them. The two are interconnected in an Internet of Grog, as will be revealed shortly. In the centre of the table is small credit-card sized recess. Here’s how it all works…

When you go in, you give them a payment card and they give you a contactless card, called a “Tab”. I assume they auth the card at that point but forgot to ask. You find a table and sit down and put your Tab in the recess in the centre of the table. At this point the table is activated and you can either pull your own pint from the on-table taps (the iPd displays as flow meter so you can see how much you are pouring) or you can use the iPad on a rotating mount in the centre of the table to order food, drinks and sundries. The iPad showed you customer ratings for the ales on offer and we could have punched up a couple of pints of wallop but we preferred the time-honoured method of asking me in host to recommend beverages. He suggested real ale for the men and white wine or a fruit-based cocktail for the ladies, so we went with the darker of Windsor & Eton Canberras on offer. I can personally attest to its quality.

If you go to another table, you can buy the drinks there by putting your Tab down. Similarly, if its someone else’s round at the table, you pick up your Tab and they put down theirs. Whatever is ordered/pumped at the table is added to the Tab. Simple. The table tablet has other functionality, aside from Facebook and Twitter access. A couple of twitter correspondents asked if there was a pub quiz or similar and there wasn’t, although I mentioned this to the software guys and they agreed this might be a good idea. It did have a jukebox app connected to the pub sound system but, oddly, it didn’t have any Hawkwind on it.

We then chose some food from the attractive and well-presented screens. A great system, especially because the menus are updated in real time so as they sell-out of various dishes the menu reflects this. I can see that, if properly handled, the use of differential pricing might be a very interesting development.

A great pub with great beer, great food and great technology. When we were chatting about it afterwards, a couple of people did wonder why they bothered with the Tab card, since everyone in the pub had a smartphone (so an HCE pub app would have done the trick) and most of them would have had a contactless card as well, so why not just use those? I expect they’re right and in time the tablets and the card will probably vanish. But for the time being, this is a pretty convenient way to order and pay.

I had the opportunity to chat to the manager of the pub and he told me that 55% of sales come through the tablets and 45% over the bar. He was very enthusiastic about the infrastructure. These are tough times for pubs in the UK but here they have year-on-year growth in sales. The manager attributed this to uplift at the tables (especially amongst groups after work or watching the football) and more room at the bar (since the bar is not as crowded there is more walk-in trade). I liked it a lot. We’ll be back.

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