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When it comes to managing beverage inventory at a restaurant, many have opted to manage their inventory manually over the years with a handwritten list or printed Excel spreadsheet. Every time a bottle is sold, the Excel spreadsheet gets updated (or not, depending on how busy it is), so inventory is up to date—in theory. Finding the right way to manage beverage program data can be complicated for both small, independent establishments and large restaurant groups.

For the back of the house, the wine buyer needs a powerful tool that makes ordering and adding products to inventory a breeze, with updates throughout the evening when a bottle is sold. For the front of the house, a guest may want to make their final buying decision based on a somm's recommendation, but might also want to poke around first and explore the list before he or she makes a final selection. For the management team, they just want it to all work smoothly so the guest enjoys their experience and the business is profitable and efficient.

Sound familiar? A handful of technology companies have their sights set on replacing those Excel printouts with a digital solution.

SOLVING A NEED

A number of digital tools have found their way into the restaurant industry over the past decade. From the Open Table reservation system to wireless POS to Yelp! reviews and digital wine lists. Things that used to be done by hand years ago are now done electronically. In general, the restaurant industry tends to lag behind other verticals in the adoption of technology. It’s not for a lack of desire by the people on the floor, but more about pushing through management levels to get to a decision-maker who sees an operational need for a new tool.

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Beverage management software was born out of a need. According to BinWise co-founder Grant Gilligan, “I was working with Raj Parr and William Sherer MS at Aqua in 2001. Raj had a difficulty managing all the data even though Raj is really good with spreadsheets.” Gilligan went on to say, “William would order a bunch of stuff over the phone, a bunch of liquor, special bottles with different costs and we’d have to track it all….and things moved fast.” Gilligan went home and developed the first version of software that would allow Aqua to track all the ordering, including regular suppliers and correct pricing that reminded him of price breaks and case deals. 

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Gilligan’s brother worked with a multimillion dollar web-based application for the clothing industry that tracked supplier information, shipping information, price breaks, purchase history and other features that he modeled his first version off of. The application was implemented in the fast paced environment at Aqua. When a bug was found, Gilligan would go home at night and work until the early hours to fix it while adding features for the restaurant management team—namely tracking the dollars and cents. “If Raj went to France and ordered a pallet of Dujac, we had to make sure we were still within our budget.”

The early versions of what would eventually become BinWise were focused on operational needs from the management team. Over time Gilligan began to see the need (or the opportunity) to integrate with the 4 practices—wine list, inventory, purchasing and sales. That led to deeper integrating with the POS system, and a new set of growing pains. “Many times menus would be out of sync with POS which meant it was out of sync with inventory”.

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MASS ADOPTION OF TECHNOLOGY

For a new technology to reach mass adoption it has to solve a problem, it needs to be affordable, it needs to be supported by the company, it needs to have a no-brainer user experience that’s easy to understand, and most importantly it needs to be reliable. When the peak of the rush is in full swing and the kitchen is buried in the weeds, that’s not the time for anything to go wrong, especially software-related.

The value proposition of beverage management software has tremendous upside potential and is still in its infancy, however, there are still inherent challenges. Craig Collins, Master Sommelier and Beverage Director of the Elm Group in Austin points out, “I use software at each of my concepts for two reasons—it helps eliminate human error and allows me to finish inventory more accurately and quicker. However, the biggest roadblock I’ve experienced is the learning curve associated with the software and incorporating it into the system already in place.” He went on to add, “It can often take months to work out kinks between technology and our program but once the two are in sync, it saves time in the long run.”

Stone black swing and dress Quiz leopard print We can look to other food-related industries to see the potential for what technology can offer a restaurant. For example, a bag of chips can be tracked through an entire supply chain from the place where it’s made to the warehouse where it’s distributed to the store where it’s sold. That bag of chips can even be tracked for how long it sits on the shelf before it’s sold. Scan data from a bar code can be a beautiful thing. 

We can’t do that with a bottle of wine yet, but in the near future we’ll be able to connect the data dots from vineyard to winery to warehouse to restaurant to table. The result of being able to see the entire journey along with more visibility into scan data from restaurants will make data much more valuable. We’ll be able to improve the chain and make better buying decisions and free up time to spend on the floor.

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KEY PLAYERS

Companies enjoying the most success in the market have realized their growth is tied to six key pillars of success—seamless integration with restaurant’s existing POS software, customer service during busy dinner hours, handheld bar scanning capability, ease of ordering inventory, iPad-based wine lists for guests, and the ability to provide rich analytics for the beverage director and restaurant owners.

A relative newcomer, TasteVin (launched out of Santa Rosa, CA, in 2010) saw the importance of integrating with as many POS systems as possible. From the beginning, TasteVin CEO, Josh Hermismeyer put an emphasis on seamless integration with existing restaurant systems. His view on scaling from the start was “making it easier to work with a restaurant’s current point-of-sale software makes it easier for the restaurant to focus on a smoother guest experience and easier time for beverage directors.”

Like BinWise, TasteVin’s founders come from a wine industry background in the San Francisco bay area. Whereas BinWise’s Gilligan cut his teeth working with the industry’s top sommeliers at Aqua and RN74, Hermismeyer studied Economics and Winemaking at UC Davis and lives on Rebecca’s Vineyard, a 17-acre Pinot Noir parcel in the Russian River valley. His Labrador media company has been at the intersection of wine and technology for the better part of a decade. TasteVin’s other co-founder, John Jordan of Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg, California knows a bit about managing distributors and distribution channels where TasteVin has scaled its growth.

The conversation about beverage management wouldn’t be complete without mentioning AccuBar. According to AccuBar’s LinkedIn profile, the company was born in a garage in Silicon Valley, then moved to Centennial, Colorado. The company’s growth to over 2,000 users came primarily from the liquor side of the restaurant business. Wine wasn’t a focus until recently with the addition of their iWineLists product.

The industry’s main beverage management software companies are from a wide swath of wine technology with varying backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses dependent on the caliber of the team behind the product. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each:

BinWise  

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Established: 2007

Cost: Nominal set up fee + $275-495 per month

Who’s Using It: Mina Group, the Keller Group, the Bacchus Group, Union Square Cafe, La Toque Napa, Oenotri, Bourbon Steak and Press Club SF

iPad-Based: Yes

Probably the most well-known beverage management software was born out in an environment where well-known sommeliers put it to the test early and often. As one of the first to market, BinWise grew organically from there and now has over 500 deals closed, with early adoption from famous restaurants such as Mina Group, French Laundry, etc. Focus on managing data is at the heart of BinWise and that makes everyone happy—from restaurant managers to beverage directors.

Pros — Head start in the industry with adoption and feedback from well-known sommeliers and beverage directors. Works really well for restaurant groups who want to see data across the entire group. New features such as push/email notifications via iphone about inventory or streamlined purchase ordering saves time and is more accurate.

Cons — The interface is in serious need of an overhaul. Information and navigation is a bit clunky and disorganized. Modern interface design practices call for cleaner, less cluttered organization of information. Features seemed to have been cobbled together over the years which leads to too much stuff on the screen.

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TasteVin 

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Established: 2010

Cost: Set-up fee similar to BinWise, $20 per month + software licenses cost $15 per iPad

swing Stone and leopard dress print Quiz black Who’s Using It: Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Fairmont Hotels, The Ritz-Carlton, Auberge Du Soleil, JW Marriott

iPad-Based: Yes

TasteVin is a joint project between Jordan Winery Owner, John Jordan and Santa Rosa winemaker/digital marketer/speaker/technologist Joshua Hermsmeyer. TasteVin’s approach is to provide a painless backend inventory management solution that syncs with POS, but also provide guests with context about the wines in stock through an iPad. As guests sit down for a meal, they can peruse the wine list on the iPad much like other products. When the sommelier arrives, the guest will be armed with additional information about wines on the updated list.

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Like BinWise, TasteVin can aggregate data across an entire restaurant group

“Ruth’s Chris has seen a 15-20% increase in sales depending on the restaurant location.” -Wilson Oswald, Ruth’s Chris

“We have a bottom up approach. Our software is somm-focused and all sales go through the sommelier.” -Josh Hermismeyer, TasteVin CEO

Pros — By far the best user experience design in the market. Josh put an emphasis on making sure the interface looked like it could’ve been designed by Apple (and that’s important). Two of his engineers come from world renowned Frog Design—which would be like a winery hiring Jean-Marc Roulot to make their Chardonnay. It’s the top of the design food chain. TasteVin also integrates with the industry’s top POS systems including Micros, Aloha, Digital Dining, Dinerware, Squirrel, POSitouch and Infogenesis, as well as a few smaller vendors.

Cons — Implementation can take weeks or months (as with other companies). The TasteVin team will come to a restaurant and manually add every single bottle to the digital inventory with a label image. POs need to be sent to TasteVin and they update your list for you, which seems laborious.

The product is primarily sold through distributors so they can track the data. Not sure if that’s a “con” but it does give the power of data to the distributors. Is that good for restaurants? 

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AccuBar

accubar.com

Established: 2000

Cost: N/A

iPad-Based: Yes

Who’s Using It: B.R. Guest Restaurants, Margaritaville, The CIA and Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining

AccuBar is either #1 or #2 in the industry, depending on who you talk to. AccuBar’s early growth can be attributed to a focus primarily on liquor management in bars. Wine was a later addition, but in recent years more functionality has been added for wine.

Pros — With more focus on the wine list, AccuBar offers complete control over liquor, beer as well as wine where other companies are weighted heavily towards wine only. AccuBar is one of the oldest and biggest players with significant marketshare.

Cons — Wine seemed to be an afterthought, and it shows. Their strength is in liquor and beer and the handheld technology is a step behind, especially for those wanting an iOS experience.

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eSommelier

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Established: 2001

Cost: N/A

iPad-Based: Yes

eSommelier serves 3 markets—Private Cellars, Hotels & Restaurants and Wine Storage Facilities. The company website appears to have been created in the 1990s. In the world of technology, it’s important to innovate often. It’s not clear if eSommelier is doing that.

Pros — Ideally, it would be cool to see how your private cellar at home might interact with a wine at a restaurant cellar. 

Cons — The iPad interface of a restaurant wine list is organized in a way that isn’t as intuitive as it should be. Rather than organize by region, grape or vintage, the choices are by "Smooth & Sexy" wines or "Rich & Toasty." The labels in each sub-category show five wine labels only on the screen. The user can swipe sideways but I suspect those first five shown will benefit the most, kind of like the first page search results on Google. 

Uncorkd

uncorkd.biz

Established 2010

Cost: N/A

iPad-Based: Yes

Who’s Using It: UNO Chicago Grill, Woodfire Grille, Rockbottom Brewery, Carnaval Brazilian Grill and the Tropicana in Atlantic City

Quiz and black swing print leopard dress Stone Uncorkd, along with TasteVin, was one of the first companies to offer iPad-based wine lists.

Pros — No wifi required, and it sports a solid search function. Might be better suited for smaller restaurants that aren’t part of a restaurant group.

print and black Quiz Stone leopard dress swing Cons — Is it a tech company for the restaurant industry or a restaurant-born company for the tech industry? Uncorkd appears to be created by engineers who know quite a bit about enjoyable iPad interface design, but are short on understanding wine industry chops or how beverage directors operate. 

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ONLY THE BEGINNING

We’re still very early on in the world of beverage management software. If this were a professional sporting event, we’d be early in the first quarter. If this were a bottle of wine the fruit characters would be tart and underripe. Pick an analogy—a new niche has been born; where it was once a sliver, now it’s a full pie piece in the pie chart of software industries.

Restaurants will continue to "season" the software and provide feedback to the companies—whose engineers can respond with better technology. It’s a snowball effect we see time and time again in other software verticals. Salesforce experienced it, Facebook experienced it, Dropbox experienced it and so did so many others that fill a need in the industry. We may need an Excel spreadsheet to track all the software companies who will be jumping in the fray with new ideas and new features. Wouldn’t that be an ironic twist?

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