At Existing Conditions, a cocktail bar that opened in New York City in July 2018, it’s almost a sport to watch patrons react to the vending machines that dispense bottled cocktails. The two 1960s-vintage soda machines—one enameled red, the other black, both with illuminated interiors—have been rigged by the bar’s co-owner, Don Lee, to hold rows of bottles containing prebatched martinis, Manhattans, and highballs. As customers approach, they stare at the rows of glowing bottles; they insert a token purchased from the host stand, the door swings open, and they pull out a bottle—and they meticulously capture every step of this process and post the sequence on Instagram, of course.
The bar sells more than 100 bottles a week from the vending machines; at $15 each, they provide a decent supplement to drinks sold at tables and the busy bar. Each machine can hold 85 bottles.
The boozy vending machine has arrived, and it’s likely going to be part of the future of how alcoholic beverages will be sold. These machines have been driven by a perfect storm of trends, including demand for faster service in high-volume bars; the rise of interactive, Instagram-worthy experiences; the popularity of self-serve trends like the use of Enomatic machines in wine bars; the preference of millennial consumers to avoid face-to-face interactions, favoring kiosks over cashiers; and the rise in ready-to-drink cocktails and canned wines—formats that are potentially ideal for dispensing via vending machines.
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At Existing Conditions, the vending machines are intended to make sure guests can get a drink, even during busy periods. “We want to be a seated service bar,” Lee says. “And while people are waiting [for a seat], we don’t want them to leave because they’re thirsty. This way you can go to the host, swipe your credit card, and immediately get a drink. You don’t have to wait for a server or for someone to talk to you—you can just go right to it.”
Lee has also modified the machines to keep drinks chilled at -4 degrees Celsius, making them “a more reliable way of serving a cocktail at the right temperature” than even a shaken or stirred drink. One unforeseen challenge, though, was that few guests understood how to pop bottle caps using the antique opener located on the side of the machine. Says Lee, “This has been an exercise in teaching millennials how to use a bottle opener.”
The Mama Lion supper club in Los Angeles also incorporated a vending machine into its beverage program this summer. The machine, initially provided by Möet Hennessy, holds 320 mini bottles of Brut Champagne. As at Existing Conditions, patrons purchase a token ($20) for the machine; they receive a 187-milliliter split, the equivalent of a six-ounce flute of bubbly. Mama Lion’s owner, Robert Kim, estimates that the restaurant typically sells 100 to 150 bottles a week. Although Möet Hennessy has supplied similar machines to bars around the world for temporary promotional stays, Kim purchased his machine in August, making it a permanent addition to his restaurant.
“It’s great for corporate parties, birthday parties,” Kim says. “[Hosts] prepurchase the tokens and give them out to guests.” The vending machine is also a boon for social media exposure, he adds. “People film themselves using the machine and [getting] the mini flutes.”
The Champagne machine hasn’t crimped sales at the bar, either, Kim says. He views it as a convivial addition to a space that’s focused on entertainment as well as food and drink. In fact, he’s been so pleased by the attention it’s generated, he’s currently negotiating to acquire a second vending machine to install in a forthcoming location about an hour and a half away. “The machine is growing to be part of our business,” says Kim. “It enhances the customer experience.”
A vending machine for beer enthusiasts is also on the horizon. Anheuser-Busch InBev’s entrepreneurial incubator and venture capital arm, ZX Ventures, recently introduced BeerBox, a beer-vending machine designed to be used at music festivals, concert events, and sporting arenas. “From an efficiency standpoint, these venues don’t have enough real estate to have more physical bars, and [they also] have trouble hiring people to run these bars,” explains BeerBox founder Bobby Gaafar, who likens the concept to “a self-checkout line at Home Depot.”
The design of BeerBox is different from that of a traditional vending machine. The BeerBox is oriented so that the machine sits on its side, with a flat “tabletop” where a beer or food can be rested. Canned beer is purchased by credit card and, unlike with other vending machines, it’s delivered already opened—a requirement for many venues where a sealed can is viewed as a potential projectile weapon.
In 2017 two BeerBox prototypes were rolled out as part of a pilot program at Live Nation music festivals in New York, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia. After making “considerable improvements” to the model, “a handful” of updated units will be rolled out, Gaafar says, and in late 2019, 50 to 100 additional BeerBoxes will be released. “We feel pretty confident that by then we’ll have worked out all the kinks and bugs.”
While the initial model dispensed only 25-ounce cans, with each unit holding 150 cans, the next iteration of BeerBox will hold a wider range of can sizes and a total of 200 to 250 cans, depending on the can sizes. In addition, Gaafar says, future versions of the machine might dispense canned wine or nonalcoholic beverages.
BeerBoxes aren’t designed for traditional bars and restaurants, where space is often at a premium and the large footprint of the box could be a problem. The business model will continue to focus on any venue where long lines are a “pain point,” says Gaafar. “There’s no reason why Madison Square Garden shouldn’t have 20 to 30 of these.”
Looking ahead, the drinks industry can expect to see more vending machines dispensing wine, beer, and cocktails in the very near future. But don’t worry, bartenders: You won’t be replaced by these machines. At least, not just yet.