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Labor does not come cheap in cities with astronomical rents, even in the service industry. So some restaurant and bar owners are cutting costs with technology, like devices that allow patrons to serve their own drinks. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Walters Sports Bar in Washington, D.C., is a gleaming new pub just blocks from the city's largest stadium. It's industrial chic and spacious, with room for hundreds of customers. Tonight, one of them is approaching a stainless steel wall lined with beer taps and slots for cards where you pay.
CHRIS PORCARO: Honestly - very easy.
ULABY: That's Chris Porcaro describing what it's like to pour himself a yeasty IPA.
PORCARO: This one was a bit foamy. So I have to say I was a little surprised by how foamy it was.
ULABY: You can pour yourself 23 different kinds of beer at this bar - 24 if you count Bud Light. That joke's from owner Jeremy Gifford. He says the technology will cut you off after a few drinks. For more, you must get approved by the staff.
JEREMY GIFFORD: We make sure that you still got your pants on and everybody's still doing OK.
ULABY: Laws that regulate pour-your-own alcohol vary from state to state. This self-serve beer wall cost Gifford $100,000, but he says it'll pay for itself because it means employing fewer bartenders.
GIFFORD: Labor is one of the largest costs in running a restaurant.
ULABY: Self-serve taps are exploding in popularity thanks to increasing staffing expenses, such as mandatory minimum wage, says Josh Goodman. He runs a company called PourMyBeer.
JOSH GOODMAN: If you have 50 self-serve taps, then you essentially have 50 employees that you don't have to pay to service your customers.
ULABY: Goodman's company sells self-serve tap systems. It sold fewer than 200 taps in 2015, but in the last four years, he says it's sold more than 5,000 to establishments across the United States.
GOODMAN: The big initiative now is to get them all communicating to one centralized mothership database so then we're gathering all this really unique information about products being dispensed.
ULABY: Big data meet your beer and your wine and your cocktails - self-serve wine bars are popping up around the country and automated self-serve cocktail taps for exactly the same drink every time. Josh Goodman says his company's working with Whole Foods, the U.S. military, even companies that do not serve alcohol at all.
GOODMAN: Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks and cold-brew coffee and kombucha. I guess anywhere you see a line, we see an opportunity.
ULABY: At a similar company called Table Tap, business has shot up sixfold since 2016 according to founder Jeff Libby. He points to all the pour-your-own taps popping up at co-working spaces, apartment lobbies and...
JEFF LIBBY: Senior living communities love self-serve beer. We put one in a senior living community and they are crushing it, and they're actually having to cut people off (laughter).
ULABY: Libby admits that cutting out servers in the service industry might feel a little harsh.
LIBBY: I am sure that there are many bartenders that don't like self-serve beer. I know that for a fact.
ULABY: One is here at Walters Sports Bar. But this former bartender, John Murphy, used a self-serve tap to pour a frosty beer.
JOHN MURPHY: I have mixed feelings about it. I'm not going to lie, but I have mixed feelings about it. But I do enjoy being able to just walk over and quench my thirst. And I'm always thirsty (laughter).
ULABY: Cheers, Murphy says, to the machines.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
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