Buffalo Wild Wings Tests Self-Serve Beer Wall
"Self-serve beer wall" is the kind of phrase that gives lawyers heart palpitations. But at the latest iteration of B-Dubs Express, it’s not quite the bacchanalian horror show one might expect.
At the third location for the Buffalo Wild Wings sub-brand designed to fit into smaller spaces and focus on off-premise orders, the self-serve beer wall is a way to capture some of that to-go traffic with a unique experience.
Todd Kronebusch, Buffalo Wild Wings’ vice president of off-premise dining and new restaurant formats said he wanted to find a way to bring beer into the express format. The first two small-format locations have been doing a lot of business, routinely hitting the same weekly volumes as a traditional location. But beverage sales were very low.
“The beer wall was something that I was very adamant about,” said Kronebusch. “Today, beer is 1 percent of sales, unlike our core restaurants that are 20 percent of sales.”
The fast-casual, counter-service design just doesn’t mesh well with alcohol anywhere. The customer has to wait in line for their food and a drink, but if they want another one, they have to get right back in line and wait all over again. And with about 75 percent off-premise sales at B-Dubs Express, there’s not many customers sticking around at all.
But at the newest location in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, customers walk away from the counter and are met with a big steel wall of 10 screens and 20 taps—they can’t miss it. Using the wall is fairly straightforward: pre-pay for a card equipped with an RFID sensor, slide it into the face of the wall and pull the tap. While a few people at the soft opening forgot their cards or were slightly confused the first trip, it was an easy thing to figure out (though one customer forgot their card in the device multiple times at the soft opening).
Kronebusch said it’s too early to tell if it’s a success, but the way customers interacted with the novel approach to beer was encouraging and fits with the customer-driven nature of the express format that also includes a “sauce bar” where customers can pick and choose from various standard and limited time sauces.
“It’s interesting to watch people stand there and experiment with beers,” said Kronebusch. “Express is about the consumer owning the experience, and the wall of taps is exactly that. They can choose a cocktail or two or different beers.”
The wall's offerings are localized to the market. There are just two mass-market beers and two tap cocktails. The other 16 taps cover the spectrum of local beer, from a deep, dark coffee ale to a fruity lager and a rosé-based sour beer. It’s kind of like a miniature beer festival without all the beards.
Customers can get a full pint or small taster-size portions and create their own three-beer flights. Kronebusch said the latter has been most popular.
“I see people go back to the wall six or seven times, but they weren’t taking full beers, they were taking little tasters,” said Kronebusch.
And to keep customers from overindulging, each employee is certified for alcohol sale and the pour cards are limited to about two full beers. Customers can get a second card if they're still with it, but Kronebusch said it would be very unlikely that anyone would be allowed to refill the card a third time.
The wall was developed by Pour My Beer, which has installed similar systems in more than 300 locations around the world. While the price of the B-Dubs Express version wasn’t disclosed, Edward Lazaruk, the director of sales at Pour My Beer, said they generally run $100,000 to $200,000 all in—$50,000 for the face plate and all the technology that keeps the beer flowing, and the remainder all the typical lines, cooling and storage that a standard 20-keg tap system requires. Lazaruk added that restaurants typically pay off the walls in about six months.
The Uptown unit also serves as the first urban location for B-Dubs Express; it’s surrounded by businesses, upscale residential housing and a lot of bars and restaurants.
Kronebusch said they would be watching the new location closely for the next six to nine months and see where the consumer leads the nascent small-format experiment. He said since Buffalo Wild Wings was acquired and housed under the Inspire Brands umbrella led by CEO Paul Brown, the “new audience” was intrigued by the performance at the first two locations.