Goodbye bartenders, hello robots: How pandemic has changed concept of bars

Topics Coronavirus

In a time when fellow drinkers and bartenders are possible disease vectors, the austerity of contactless cocktails can be comforting
Fear of enclosed spaces and sloppy, less-than-socially distanced crowds may change drinking culture for a long time to come. It’s already threatening the future of your friendly bartender.

Countertop cocktail makers were here for years. Larger-scale commercial options have been mixing drinks and entertainment, using robotic arms to shake cocktails in clubs from Europe to Dubai and aboard cruise ships. But the pandemic may have opened up a bigger stage.

A woman placing her face mask down on an empty bar and clinking glasses with a robotic bartender was not your typical drinking ad before Covid-19. But in a time when fellow drinkers and bartenders are possible disease vectors, the austerity of contactless cocktails can be comforting.

“In robotic bars like ours, there is no kind of contact with (people) because you can order and pay through your mobile phone, so you touch nothing,” said Emanuele Rossetti, chief executive officer of Torino, Italy-based Makr Shakr.

To be sure, robotic mixologists won’t solve the risk of close quarters — which is part of what makes bars ideal hotspots for transmitting the virus. Your local bar probably doesn’t have the money right now to bring in a more-than-$100,000 robot, either. And big-ticket customers like cruise lines are stuck in a pandemic-induced financial pinch. Rossetti said the initial impact was a “very big slowdown”, but conversations about new orders have started up again.

Dina Zemke, an associate professor at Ball State University who studies how physical environments affect services, said robotic bartenders are more entertainment than serious mixologists. She said that while bartenders still have a future, bars themselves may change.

There are semi-robotic options that may catch on more — such as automated dispensers for wine and mixed drinks, she said. And there are non-alcoholic options, too: “Sally” is a $35,000 salad-making robot that aims to clean up the supermarket salad bar. “The concept of a bar is completely changing now.”

But Alan Adojaan, CEO of Estonia-based startup Yanu, said his company has created a prototype robot bartender that’s getting interest from airports and casinos. “The concept of a bar is completely changing now, and the concept of nightclubs and public events,” Adojaan said. While humans are needed to maintain and stock automated bars, mechanised mixologists do succeed in cutting out the customer-bartender interface.

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