Bartending, RFID Style

A beverage company is now selling RFID attachments for bottles, which analyzes the bottle's tilt angle and duration to calculate how much liquor is being poured and whether the bartender is sticking to the recipe.

On a busy Saturday night, a good bartender makes a lot of money for the bar's owner, but an overly generous bartender?or one fond of pouring free drinks for friends--can cost the bar's owner even more.

A Miami-based 7-year-old beverage-monitoring software firm is drinking from the keg of RFID and is selling a tilt switch that attaches to bottles and updates an Internet database every time the bottle is poured. Hilton, Hyatt, Outback Steakhouse, TGI Fridays and others are reportedly testing the system.

It's not merely recording how many times the bottle is poured, but it factors in the tilt of the bottle, the duration of the pour and that bartender's pouring style to calculate much liquid is leaving the bottle.

"The software converts the tilt into an estimated volume, the conversion is automatically perfected based on the history of each bottle, hence it becomes more accurate over time and adapts to each bartender?s habits. When the bottle is empty, our sensor knows it and the software readjusts the historical pours of each bottle to the known volume of the bottle," said Beverage Metrics CEO David Teller, who said that it his company has between $5 million and $10 million in annual revenue. "Our system reconciles pours to ring ups and recipes and automatically decides what is a long pour that should be changed to two pours, when to combine short pours in sequence."

Because the server that watches the tilt-tracking RFID system also tracks the Point-of-Sale system, it can also know what ingredients bartenders are using to make drinks and whether they are following the authorized recipes in addition to whether they are pouring too much or too little.

Teller said he expects the sensors to eventually sell for "less than $2 with housing, attachment means, on/off switch, tilt switch, TI micro, 5 year battery and RF circuit." Right now, though, the price is closer to $5 plus a subscription fee roughly equivalent to about one percent of revenue, Teller said.

Teller argues that his system fits perfectly within the typical restaurant supply chain.

"We are at the cusp of changing the hospitality industry as significantly as POS did, by deploying miniature active RFID tags to every bottle received off the truck. The system reconciles the purchase order to the received goods and the sensors ping every hour, thereby updating the inventory automatically," he said. "When a bottle arrives at a bar or banquet, the system knows where it is by the receiver location. When a bottle is tilted, the inventory is reduced by that amount and value. When the drink is rung up on the POS, it is reconciled against the pour. If there's no payment registered, the open pour is an alert. When the bottle is empty, it automatically builds the purchase order."

The system's readers have about a range of about 50 feet, but Teller said that a bartender pouring a drink beyond the range of the sensor?or simply disabling the sensor?would be impractical because all of the tags are in periodic contact with the server.

"It issues an alert if the tag is removed," he said. "If the sensor doesn't ping 'Hey, I'm here' after an hour, we start paying attention to that guy."

John Fontanella, an RFID analyst with the Aberdeen Group, dubbed Teller's system "an interesting idea" but wondered whether wireless rings around the bottles would scare off customers and chill some of the bartender-drinker relationship.

"Will it be invisible to customers? Remember those machines that were used to accurately pour a drink every time? They were all over the place and now I never see one. There is a reason why: it ruins the intimacy created between customer and bartender," Fontanella said. "Good bartenders take care of good customers. It's as simple as that and that?s what brings them back. If the customer is unaware, or if it is in a bar with a great deal of transient traffic, it makes sense."

But Fontanella is even more cynical about whether it will truly minimize theft. "I?m already thinking about how bartenders will beat this," he said. "They will find a way."