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Behold The Smartlist: Tablet Technology is Vaulting Wine Lists into the Digital Age

Posted on  | February 23, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Looking to increase your wine sales? There’s an app for that!  In fact, a growing number of developers are eager to make wine lists, and other restaurant menus, available to customers on iPads and tablet computers. While this may seem like a huge expense for mere novelty, these developers claim that tablet wine lists are delivering both as a marketing tool and hard sales producers, as they aim to revolutionize the wine list.

Greg Rosner, partner in eSommelier, the Ridgefield, NJ–based creators of the iPad Wine List App, believes that the uniqueness of the user experience seduces the customer. “This is a way to create a guest experience that differentiates a restaurant. It’s like the investment you make in ambiance and furniture, something that pays off in word-of-mouth advertising,” says Rosner. He cautions, however, that the experience needs to deliver on the digital promise of convenience and service. Once a restaurant enters its wine list with the appropriate database information, customers can use the iPad to sort by categories like varietal, region and price, or even use the on-screen keyboard to search directly for favorite wine producers.

For eSommelier, part of delivering a quality experience also meant insisting on the Apple platform, as opposed to offering an app that runs only on jailbroken devices or non-Apple tablets. (This common workaround for outlaw apps voids the warranty of the Apple device and makes operating system updates a chore.) “The Apple product is a premium-priced product, but we really feel it gives a quality experience, from the minute you hold the device,” explains Rosner.

The versatile iPad Wine List offers a good level of customization for an off-the-rack solution, allowing  users to “skin” the app with their own look and feel, like adding the food menu, wine label images and/or pairing suggestions. The app can be downloaded free, but requires a subscription, starting at $299 a month for activation on up to five iPads.

Hardware Hurdles

The greatest challenge for restaurants, and therefore developers, lies in the price of outfitting a restaurant with tablet computers—a substantial upfront expense. Rosner suggests that one iPad wine list per 30 seats is the minimum. With people spending more time passing and perusing the list, many find they need to add more. And, if you intend to retire your paper food menu, that number is likely to rise even higher.

The premium price of Apple products and the growing marketshare and acceptance of Android-based tablets encouraged Maxx Menu, based in Stamford, CT, to go Android. “We’ve chosen to go with Android because of the price point and also the open source. With Apple you are limited and forced to develop within their walls. There is a significant price difference between the lowest iPad, at $499, plus a leather case and screen protector, versus competing Android tablets,” says Maxx Menu VP Brian Wolcott.

Maxx Menu, available in the Android Market, also offers searchable database categories and the ability to customize filters. A one-time start-up cost of $2,995 applies to up to 20 devices, with a $99 per month hosting fee. Like many systems, Maxx Menu tablets rely on a wifi connection for occasional updates, accessing the cloud-based information as it is updated by the wine director or owner through an administrator tablet. Most users begin with 15-20 tablets.

Real World Results

Since its launch in October 2011, Maxx Menu has noted some impressive figures. Treva Restaurant & Bar in West Hartford, CT, reports a 20% increases in sales for food and the same for wine. Perhaps most surprising is the 30% increase in dessert sales. “We’re finding that it’s a digital menu is very powerful when you can offer an enticing visual or a wine pairing to make the upsell,” Wolcott says. Another of Maxx Menu’s early adopters is Flûte in Manhattan.

Some of the most sophisticated cross marketing and brand development on restaurant tablets is appearing from leading restaurateurs like Gordon Ramsey, Tony May and José Andrés, all utilizing the SmartCellar software from Long Island-based developer Incentient. In addition to sorting and selling wine, SmartCellar works to assist each client with custom branding, guiding the guest through a carefully orchestrated experience. “We are a certified enterprise developer with Apple, so we are able to lock down the device, including the home button, and take the guest down the journey we want them to go on,” says Jennifer Martucci, inventor and co-founder. “We feel it has to be completely customized for every client because some have 100 bottles of wine and some have 10,000.”

While Incentient clients have reported overall wine sales increases of 25%, Martucci says the ability for sophisticated customization—for instance having the wine list button first go to a single special feature wines—has increased sales of such wines by as much as 30%.

Far more than a pretty display, a custom tablet can push information to the guest—whether it’s selling cookbooks and sauces, promoting upcoming special events or suggesting alternatives to a sold-out wine. And Incentient is inventive in the collecting of information and customer interactivity. “This is a powerful data-mining tool. You used to write down the name of a wine for a guest, now we can collect their email and send them the label image. Then, you might follow-up and say, ‘Thanks for coming, we wanted to let you know we got the new vintage of your favorite wine in,’” says Martucci.

Unlike cloud-based solutions, Incentient prefers their on-table iPad solutions to reference a local intranet with an on-site server for their information and inventory management. Custom applications, including design, set-up and installation, include a one-time charge of $1,200. However, Incentient also chooses to own and maintain all hardware with scalable plans that start at $750 a month. “When anything goes down we replace it overnight,” says Martucci, offering peace of mind when the occasional iPad falls to the floor or meets a glass of spilled wine.

In addition to increased revenues, some Incentient clients have been able to offset the investment in digital menus and drinks lists by tapping distributor dollars, featuring spirits brands on their cocktail list or promoting wines by the glass in the equivalent of high-tech table tents, for example.

Expanded  Capabilities

The capability of tablets seems limited only by the imagination (and budget). Remaining to be seen is the degree to which diners are interested in engaging a machine during what is inherently a social activity. Another question mark: how fast new variations on the basic concept of electronic wine lists evolve and multiply—as well as how soon they may trend down in cost. Florida-based developer Hospitality Social, whose  Apple-based Personal Sommelier is being used in several Shula’s Steak Houses, has programs starting at $69.95 per month per iPad, including leased hardware.

Taken in perspective, tablets represent the most important technological advancement in wine list (and menu) development since laser printers. But while laser printers were easily controlled in-house, tablets involve elevated technical expertise and at least at the outset require outside setup and support. Coming months are bound to bring even more options into the digital wine-list arena.

HubWorks Interactive, based in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, is looking to increase revenues by revolutionizing other functionalities, including giving guests the ability to instantly order a fresh round of drinks, or pay their check. These “few dudes in the mountains,” as co-founder Aaron Gabriel Gabriel humbly refers to HubWorks, have scored a coup with a trial taking place with Buffalo Wild Wings in Minneapolis. While it’s not an expansive menu, their first efforts in interface design have an intuitive feel and bold look that should appeal to chain restaurant diners.

Tablets surely have viability that extends beyond restaurants and bars. Royal Caribbean teamed up with software firm Agilysis to created a customized “Savvy Sommelier” iPad-based system that encompasses direct-ordering capability, server-guest messaging, embedded video content and cross-promotions; the system is multilingual, to boot.

MICROS Systems, a veteran  information technology firm serving the hospitality and retail industries, recently debuted its “mymenu” app at Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, MD. In addition to replacing a 60-page Libations Book with a well-illustrated, organized and searchable iPad database, the MICROS developers helped integrate Beer Club and Cork Club loyalty programs directly into the iPad system. Randy Marriner, owner of Victoria Gastro Pub, says this enhanced capability provides an unprecedented view of customers’ specific activities, and allows them to recognize and reward core clientele as well as attract new or less frequent guests. Sounds like a place that would make the Jetsons feel right at home.  


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