Technology

No Menus Here

Why some contrarian bars are scrapping printed cocktail menus—and what they’re doing instead

compilation of electronic menus
Photo illustration by Jeff Quinn.

At the retro sci-fi themed bar Jupiter Disco in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, it’s always too dark to read a drink menu. But there’s no need to squint with the aid of a votive candle or pull up the flashlight app on your phone to see the list of options; Jupiter Disco doesn’t offer paper menus.

While the world of printed menus has grown increasingly baroque, with elaborate, book-length menus at bars like Dead Rabbit and Blacktail in New York City or highly conceptual menus, like the ones at the bar Trick Dog in San Francisco, which are printed on vintage vinyl records or colorful paint chips, some bars are opting for the opposite approach—no physical menus at all.

Guests at Jupiter Disco glance up at a TV screen for a list of drinks scrolling in DOS-style lettering that evokes a 1980s video game. Or they can use their phones to look up the menu, which is also posted on the bar’s website.

“It fits into our aesthetic,” explains Al Sotack, a partner and bartender at Jupiter Disco. For a bar that cites Alien, The Terminator, and other sci-fi flicks as design inspiration, a retro-futuristic “digital chalkboard” seems right. “It also gives us a lot of flexibility. We can change one drink if we want or remove drinks as we 86 things throughout the course of the night.”

Even before the printing press, bars and restaurants always had ways to present menus without paper: chalkboards, letter boards, and mirrors scrawled over with wine lists are long-standing options still in use today. Some bars, particularly those with a speakeasy aesthetic, skip menus altogether, encouraging bartenders to interact with customers and guide their drink selections one-on-one. New York City’s Attaboy (and earlier, Milk & Honey) and Boston’s Drink famously embrace this approach.

But digital options are currently leading menu development, taking into account patrons who continually keep phones within reach. The cost savings (no paper, no printing costs, no lost or stained menus) are also a factor, as is the ease of updating menus instantly if, say, a drink special runs out. Some bar owners also cite “green” initiatives to be part of the paperless appeal. Here’s how three bars are employing tech-driven alternatives to traditional printed cocktail menus, why they work, and how much they cost to implement.

Jupiter Disco: TV screen and guests’ phones

How they did it:  The bar worked with Digital Cloud Designs to produce the software, which connects to the bar’s POS system. Bartenders use iPads to make updates to the website and the scrolling TV screen menu on the fly. “They helped us find the right fonts,” Sotack says. “We made sure it was modular so we could change the speed [of the scrolling menu] and move things around.”

Why it works: The board fits with the bar’s aesthetic. It’s got a cool factor. It’s easy to switch up the drink menu and ideal for engaging customers who are using their phones anyway.

Cost: “Thousands of dollars,” estimates Sotack. However, he notes that it’s difficult to precisely separate out work done for the menu from work on other website design and back-end and other systems built for the bar.

Trash Tiki: Instagram

How they did it: Form follows function for this roving pop-up focused on sustainability. Instead of paper menus, Trash Tiki founders Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths post menus on Instagram, underscored by the cheeky advisory: “Make sure your phone is on and charged! There won’t be printed menus!” or “Screen Shot that shit—we don’t print menus!”

Why it works: It’s on-brand with the “green” theme. It’s easy to update at the last minute, say the founders, since drink offerings depend on what “scraps” become available. The Instagram menu speeds up ordering for guests at the bar’s often-crowded one-night-only events. Says one recent attendee, “It was nice not having to wait to be handed a menu.”

Cost: None.

Terrapin: iPad

How they did it: Tablet-based menus aren’t exactly new. The tablet wine list has become a staple in some fine-dining restaurants; airport outposts have also embraced them in an effort to pare down waitstaff. But what was once a major undertaking to set up has become much easier to implement. At Terrapin in Virginia Beach, the managing partner Brian Williams chose the Tastevin app to set up a cloud-based wine list and drink menu. It plugs into the restaurant’s POS system, so as soon as wine bottles or beer kegs are depleted, those offerings are removed from the list. Says Williams, “It helps us with our inventory.”

Why it works: There’s no disappointing guests with “Sorry, that’s not available.” Guests can use the iPad to learn about wine on the spot. Terrapin also uses the iPad to collect email addresses from guests so they can be sent information about a wine and label later if they choose; those addresses can be used for future email marketing campaigns.

Cost: $1,200 initial on-boarding charge, plus the initial cost to purchase the iPads (Terrapin has nine) and approximately $135 per month for the app ($15 per month for each tablet).  “Once people have ordered their wine, we pull the iPad,” says Williams. “We don’t want people to spill water on them.”

Kara Newman reviews spirits for Wine Enthusiast magazine and is the author of Cocktails for a CrowdShake. Stir. Sip.and Nightcap (Chronicle Books).

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