The Pub of the Future

Technology and a Changing Marketplace

In the pub of the future, a robot will take your drink order, a machine will prepare your burger, and you will pay with an app on your phone, never connecting with another human throughout the entire transaction. Or maybe not. Maybe you’ll just be hanging out in Instagrammable concept bars and making your own cocktails in a test tube.

Whatever the future holds for the pub, one thing is certain: It’s going to change, and fast.


A Public Place

The idea of the pub, a “third space” that is neither home nor work, where an individual can enjoy refreshment and social engagement in equal measure, dates back to the taverns of ancient Rome. The Romans brought the tavern to Britannia, where it became the public house, or pub, the heart and soul of every community. It is said that in Shakespeare’s time there was one pub for every 200 inhabitants in Britain. It is also said that the pub has been going downhill ever since.

Things have been especially dire over the last decade. The British Beer and Pub Association reports that a staggering 10,500 pubs have closed in the UK since 2000, 7,000 of those since 2007, leaving only about 50,000 to continue the struggle. According to Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), 18 pubs shuttered permanently every week in 2017 alone in the UK.

Blame the UK’s smoking ban of 2007, the recession of 2008, cheap booze in grocery stores, and an escalator tax imposed in 2008 (later revoked in 2013). Blame the exponential growth in the number of licensed competitors such as craft breweries and cocktail bars. You can also blame changing tastes: fewer young people drink these days and are more likely to opt for wine or spirits when they do. These issues have not only affected British pubs, they have impacted pubs across the world.

Although the situation isn’t as disastrous in Canada, many of these and other factors—such as stricter drinking-and-driving laws that encourage people to stay home—also affect BC’s pubs. So how can a publican face the future with optimism?

Some concept bars even offer costumes and group activities

A New Concept

Studies by market research firm Nielsen suggest Millennials (the financially strapped but tech-savvy generation born between 1981 and 1996) drink less alcohol than their Boomer and GenX elders, and are more likely to do so at home than in a bar or pub. If they do go out, reports research firm Mintel, they seek unique experiences, new flavours, and fun activities. Millennials have already been blamed for killing everything from paper napkins to golf. Will the pub be next?

Pubs who want to attract Millennials need to offer more than pull-tabs and commercial draft. Forward-thinking pubs not only offer Instagrammable venues, they also serve craft beer, good food, and creative cocktails. In other words, they’ve evolved into gastropubs and offer participatory entertainment. That might mean board games or electronic ones, on-table beer taps or wine on tap, social events, or workspaces with free Wi-Fi. Some have even dabbled in virtual reality.

And then there are those who go all in on a concept or theme. We’re not just talking sports bars or Irish pubs, but immersive taverns like Vancouver’s Dark Manor Inn, a spooky whisky bar all decked out like a haunted house complete with coffin table, gargoyles, and themed drinks. Some concept bars even offer costumes and group activities, like the Breaking Bad-themed molecular cocktail bar ABQ London, where guests in yellow jackets and goggles mix their own drinks like mad chemists.


Tech to the Rescue

Fancy cocktails and costumed entertainment aside, one area no business can ignore is technology.

A 2018 report from Statistics Canada, entitled A Portrait of Canadian Youth, found that nearly 100% of youth aged 15 to 24, across all provinces and income levels, use social networking sites and the Internet on a daily basis. And half of those aged 25 to 34 conduct transactions online at least weekly, double the number of older Canadians.

Technology offers an even greater benefit to the bottom line, especially when it comes to staffing costs and shortages

Pubs have a terrific opportunity to engage this fickle but tech-savvy consumer through social media strategies. However, technology offers an even greater benefit to the bottom line, especially when it comes to staffing costs and shortages.

Already, many fast-food restaurants have installed self-serve kiosks so customers can order their meals without speaking to an employee. Digital inventory, POS, and reservation systems also streamline business for pubs and restaurants.

Now two Vancouver companies—Glance Technologies Inc. and Ready, which is owned by iQmetrix—have developed technology that allows guests to order and pay for their food and drink through their smartphones. More than 500 restaurants in BC, Alberta, and Ontario are using Glance’s app for bill payment. Customers typically take a photo of a QR code on a paper bill, then pay by credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, although a fully digital system is in the works. Ready’s system is similar, but does not require guests to download an app first.

Meanwhile, the ordering programs are still being field-tested—they would have guests order through their phones and either pick up their order at a counter or have a server deliver it. Some estimates suggest it could cut the need for servers in half, a boon when it is increasingly difficult to find staff, let alone pay for them.

Rise of the Robots

Then again, one day soon those servers might just be replaced by robots. In 2018, the California-based computer technology corporation Oracle released a study called Restaurant 2025 that predicted drone food deliveries, 3D printing, voice-activated responses, virtual reality and biometric diner recognition will transform the dining experience in less than a decade. Among their findings: 50% of guests say they do not want to be served by a robot, but 80% of operators anticipate robots will be cleaning restaurants by 2027.

Meanwhile Forbes magazine reports that we can anticipate robots in the kitchen and perhaps even behind the bar sooner than you might think. Consider Boston’s Spyce: It’s the world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals by machine—from a menu created by Daniel Boulud, no less—in under three minutes. And a study by New York’s Center for an Urban Future found that almost every type of job will be transformed by automation over the next few years, and that among those most highly affected will be fast food workers, dishwashers, and those who prepare food – jobs that can all be replaced by robots.

The pub of the future, then, will look very different from the one of the past. However, even if a robot serves your seasonal craft ale while you play at being a mad scientist, the pub is still the best place to quench the human thirst for conversation and companionship.