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Introducing the iPub: London boozer serves beer with iPads

A pub in Southwark has installed iPads with custom-built software to cut ordering time for customers. The Robot Pub Group now hopes to expand its concept to other venues.

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Topic: Tablets
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1 of 6 Jon Yeomans

The Thirsty Bear pub in Southwark, London has installed iPads to speed up the ordering process for its customers.

The pub — or iPub, if you will — has 15 tables with an iPad attached. After getting a magnetic swipe card from the bar, customers can buy beer via the tablet, and then pour it themselves from taps set up on their table.

The touchscreen menu can also be used to order other types of drink and food from the kitchen, as well as select songs on the pub jukebox.

The iPads have access to the internet for when chatting begins to pall, and a pub-quiz program.

Phil Neale, operations director for the Robot Pub Group, explained that he and his friends dreamt up the concept simply to cut the queuing time in a bar.

"We came up with the taps-on-tables idea, but then you've got people who want to order other drinks. So we thought of some kind of touchscreen system," he said.

This was before the iPad was even released; once Apple's tablet came along, they realised it would make the ideal delivery mechanism. The group now claims it's the first in the world to marry self-service beer taps with tablets.

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2 of 6 Jon Yeomans

Food and drink orders are relayed to staff via Wi-Fi to iPhones strapped on their arms.

The Thirsty Bear currently has 15 customer iPads, 12 of them on tables with beer taps. All the tablets are first-generation iPads running custom-made software, though Neale says the pub is upgrading to the iPad 2, and the company is looking into other tablet types for portable use.

"The new version we're working on is going to be HTML5 so it'll work on any tablet," he said.

Robot Pub Group plans to release an 'e-menu', a touchscreen menu card that can be passed around.

"The upfront costs of that are much cheaper and we'll probably need more of them, so that would lend itself to a cheaper tablet," Neale explained, adding that is one device that might work for the e-menu.

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Above, the touchscreen food menu includes the option to build your own burger.

While at present the system uses magnetic swipe cards that customers can buy from behind the bar, soon the group will be rolling out RFID cards that work a little bit like London Underground's Oyster cards. People can touch in when they want to order a drink, and touch out again.

"The advantages of that is that if you've got a big group, people coming and going, and one person doesn't want to have the tab, everyone can basically have their own tab," Neale said. "Similarly, if you want to move round the venue: a lot of people will go over to a different table to pour their beer. The RFID will be a lot easier for that."

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4 of 6 Jon Yeomans

Neale admitted there had been some teething problems with the iPad rollout. The Wi-Fi network was not initially strong enough to cope with all the orders flying back and forth, though this was fixed with a new set of access points.

The RFID cards should fix a number of nagging problems with magnetic cards, according to Neale. Somewhat surprisingly, none of the iPads have yet broken down due to beer being spilt over them.

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5 of 6 Jon Yeomans

Since installing the iPads at the Thirsty Bear in January, Robot Pub Group says it has seen takings increase by around 78 percent compared with November-December 2011.

"Reaction's been good. A lot of people know you can pour your own beer so they come in because of that, then when they get here, they realise the iPad adds a lot to their evening," Neale, whose background is in IT consulting, said.

"This was always meant to be a pilot, partly to put our money where our mouth was," he added.

The Robot Pub Group now hopes to sell its concept to other pubs and has had "five to six approaches" from interested parties, according to Neale.

One added cost of the system lies less with the tablets than with the plumbing, as extra pipes have to be laid from the bar to each self-service table.

The company is planning to open another venue of its own in Fulham, which may come with a self-service 'beer wall', where punters can serve themselves from eight to 10 different taps.

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Above, left to right: William, Charles, Peter and Simon travelled up from Marlow specifically to visit The Thirsty Bear, having read about it elsewhere. They gave the Robot Pub Group's concept a cautious thumbs-up.

"We think it would be good at sports events," Charles pointed out. "When there's football and things on and you're sitting here with your mates, you can just pour a pint rather than going back and forth to the bar. You wouldn't miss anything."

ZDNet can report that at the time of our visit both the iPads and the beer were fully functional.

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