Contactless Service Comes to Breweries

During these past months of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses have opened and closed and opened and closed, trying to weather the financial trouble that comes from limited business operations. Many of them were unable to find a sufficiently viable solution that didn’t lead to more sickness and death in their communities. It’s a difficult and delicate line to walk, but those that found the most success did so by leaning into contact-free ordering systems that prioritize the health and safety of customers and staff members alike.

It’s easy for some nonessential businesses to make changes like having their employees work remotely and implementing stringent social distancing measures, but that’s hard to do for a lot of the service industry. In restaurants and bars, the quality of customer service makes or breaks a reputation, and reputation, which is highly dependent on face-to-face interactions between servers and customers, directly influences the bottom line.

Technology is doing its best to adapt to the current situation, and as months go by, the restaurant tech industry has come up with more and more solutions to handle the pressing question of how to balance safety with sales—and getting better at it all the time.

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Temescal Brewing

In the Bay Area of California, Temescal Brewing wasn’t the only company forced to rethink their business approach after that first, massive wave of shutdowns came for them in March. They finally got the chance to reopen for good in July, although their journey was fraught with trouble: Initially prepared to reopen seating at limited capacity on July 11th, the county announced late the night before that they would once again shut down outdoor dining, which threw a wrench late in their plans. However, the delay ultimately gave the brewery more time to prepare for the relaunch, making sure they could hit the ground running when the time came. The county successfully petitioned the state health department to get the shutdown repealed, and by July 15th, beer al fresco was on the table once again—literally.

Those few extra days gave Temescal the time they needed to perfect their approach. Now they have a completely contact-free method for serving craft beer to their eager customers, in the hopes that all this automation and security will keep everyone safe enough to avoid another closure in the future.

First, Temescal eliminated indoor ordering, thus reducing the risk that customers take by staying with them. All seating takes place outdoors in their beer garden and patio, making it easier to socially distance tables and keep customers apart. Additionally, the lack of circulated air means customers are much less likely to spread any germs they might have.

Temescal is also following all the state guidelines; California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control made rules in March mandating that any establishment serving drinks could only stay open if customers could get food there, too; in a mutually beneficial agreement, Temescal Brewing partnered with Roli Roti, a rotisserie food truck on the premises, so as to meet these mandates. They now require that every customer buys a meal ticket, too.

Interestingly, throughout COVID-19 there’s been a massive shift in consumer attitudes regarding customer service. Traditionally in the past, good service was defined by face-to-face contact between guests and waitstaff, judged by the quality of those interactions and speed and ease of service. Many customers are concerned with the amount of back-and-forth their server may have had with others throughout the day, though, and employees are extremely worried about all that exposure when they don’t have the option to stay home or find another job in the midst of a massive pandemic and economic recession which may, any day now, tip over into an outright depression.

Thus Temescal took a different approach: They eliminated waitstaff when they reopened and replaced them with the Beer-O-Mat. That’s not the say they fired employees; on the contrary, they were able to keep everyone on staff and simply reassign their positions and day-to-day tasks to make for a better, safer work environment.

The structure’s name walks the line between high-tech and too serious, but it’s actually more fun and light than it sounds; the Beer-O-Mat is just a big, green-and-pastel-pink construction that every brewery can create some variation of to similarly limit dangerous face-to-face contact. Inspired by the automats of old, it amounts to a series of cubbies with plexiglas barriers where customers can grab their drinks, but as simple as it sounds, it adds a layer of extra protection that makes it just that little bit safer to reopen during a global pandemic.

Of course other breweries can design their own version of the Beer-O-Mat to fit their brand and audience; Temescal specifically intended it to be a little bit silly. Sam Gilbert, the cofounder of the company, said of the monolith: “Rather than setting up a table where people could just come and grab a beer, we wanted to … add a little bit of whimsy to what is a very different experience for people.”

The Beer-O-Mat is perfectly in line with the vibe of the brewery, whose regular decals include bananas, cactuses and amusing signage like “NO JERKS.” Anyone who wants to follow in their footsteps and take similar measures during their reopening can build their own Beer-O-Mat that matches the decorative scheme and tone that their particular brewery wants to convey.

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Beer-O-Mat and social distance

Their efforts at shielding employees would be incomplete without taking additional steps to provide a safe and sanitary experience. From start to finish, Temescal makes sure every customer feels as safe as possible drinking with them. Here’s how it works:

  • A host greets customers at the entrance and assigns them a table, where they remain for the duration of their stay.
  • Customers order at the entrance as well by scanning a QR code on their phone. They enter their name and payment information on that screen and choose their beer too, finishing the entire transaction right then and then.
  • When the order is ready, customers get a text telling them to go pick up their beer at the Beer-O-Mat. Compartments are labeled by table number, which is why it’s so important to stay where the host assigns you—and also because it reduces the risk of germs, of course, which can spread by touching the same table as another customer before it’s sanitized.
  • At the back of each cubby, a sliding plexiglass panel lets employees put each beer safely in their assigned spot for the customer to grab.

For the time being, Temescal is only serving canned beer, probably because they’re not reusable and thus don’t carry the inherent risk that all multi-use items do. Customers can’t spread germs if there are no shared surfaces to touch.

Temescal’s Beer-O-Mat especially stands out because they managed to corner the intersection of functionality and fun. Its lighthearted exterior holds a genuinely good design that protects customers as well as staff, which is great because employees’ safety often isn’t a big factor when considering how to reopen in a way that’s compliant with local and state guidelines.

The future of breweries

Though figuring out the best way to prioritize safety concerns took awhile, the extra time gave Temescal Brewing the opportunity to find something that really worked; meanwhile, others are struggling because they try to open as fast as possible, taking the easy way to get it done quickly rather than really hammering out effective solutions that assuage the public’s concerns about health and safety. Ultimately this just costs more time and money, and a lot of businesses end up bankrupt and shut down forever.

Temescal has other advantages that keep them afloat when other breweries, bars, and restaurants can’t manage: Loans from the Paycheck Protection Program. Although many small businesses applied for PPP loans, Temescal Brewing is one of the lucky few who actually received one; thus they were able to rehire and keep all of their staff throughout these many months of unsureness and struggle to get to where they are now.

They keep their patio open on weekends only, to reduce some of the crowds; customers can enjoy a cold beer there every Thursday and Friday from 4 to 8:30PM or Saturday and Sunday between 3 and 9PM. That and the beer garden will stay open through the rest of the summer.

They also have a pickup service available for those who don’t want to stay and enjoy the atmosphere they’ve cultivated outdoors. The pickup area is also behind a Plexiglas barrier and has a kiosk for customers to use, though they have to order online first before they come onto the premises.

Multi-ethnic millenial couple flirting while having a drink on rooftop terrasse at sunset

Temescal Brewing has walked the line between safety precautions and a fun, lighthearted atmosphere. Following protocol doesn’t have to be dreary, and ensuring the continued good health of everyone involved with or around your business doesn’t mean giving up brand identity. You don’t have to forgo any of the reasons that you, as a business owner, began your brewery in the first place. It’s a new age—and breweries need to learn how to handle COVID-19 safety procedures with as much weight as they give the rest of their business operations. Temescal’s Beer-O-Mat, in all its amusing but effective glory, is the lighthouse beckoning in the future of brewery service.

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