It’s an unusually hot day for October as I enter Existing Conditions, the much-talked-about cocktail bar in Manhattan that opened this past July, and I already want a cocktail. I’m here to discuss the room’s most buzzed about (and oft-Instagrammed) bartenders: two vending machines that share a heritage as well as a nitrogen tank. The 60s-era former soda machines were purchased and rejiggered by one of the bar's co-owners, Dave Arnold, and his crew.
The machines at Existing Conditions now refrigerate and distribute three $15 pre-bottled cocktails purchased via token: a Manhattan, a martini, and a Cinema Highball. Each machine holds 70 bottles, which are priced the same as the bar’s $15 signature non-bottled cocktails.
Across the country at Mama Lion in Los Angeles, there's a custom vending machine holding 320 mini bottles of Moët and Chandon. Owner Robert Kim says that they sell around 150 $20 bottles a week. He admits that the margins are slim, but he believes the hype was well worth the investment.
Though most bar owners aren’t willing to disclose the actual price paid for their vending machines, David Ashforth, co-founder of custom vending machine maker Digital Media Vending, is in the business of providing estimates. “For a 50-inch touch screen vending machine, with conveyor belts, elevators, automatic delivery door, [it’s] between $10,000 to $15,000. Or $200 to $300 a month to lease, depending on credit and final specification of machine,” Ashforth says. But of course, depending on the manufacturer and specifications, some machines are more like a downpayment on a nice home—the one dispensing soft serve at Bar Moxy in New York reportedly cost as much as $68,000.
However, the general sentiment among management is that the benefits these machines bring are worth the price tag. “What this vending machine provides is a way for us to cut back on labor cost while still delivering an upscale hip product that matches the venue,” says Matt Strauss, a managing partner at TAO, which owns Bar Moxy.
That said, vending machine bartenders are probably a long way away from taking real bartender jobs: In most cases, customers order a token from the bar, which is then used to make a vending machine purchase. The extra step might sound convoluted, but it ends up cutting down on service time.
“As an owner, I would always trade pre-shift work to shift time. Ain’t nothing faster than handing someone a token, you know what I mean?” explains Arnold. Making drinks takes time, so the ability to serve guests immediately by having them partially serve themselves is in theory a win-win situation.
The people on the front lines seem to agree. “It’s the easiest thing as a bartender working service tickets when someone comes up and they want a drink,” says Existing Conditions bartender Natasha Torres. However, even though the machines streamline the process, there’s still some growing pains as customers adjust. The tokens, for example, exist because bars have a legal (and moral) responsibility to not over-serve intoxicated guests. The tokens create a necessary interaction between staff and customer—but they also require regular explanation. And someone on staff must constantly make sure guests aren’t taking the bottles off-premises, which at least one person has already tried to do at Existing Conditions.
Despite the initial buzz these venues received, questions about their long-term impact on tipping remain. “I was worried initially that the tip average would be lower, that people would tip less,” Arnold says. But he insists that hasn’t been an issue at Existing Conditions—his staff hasn’t noticed any disparity between what the tips should be based on total revenue and what they’re actually receiving. “If it became a problem later, that’s something I would seriously think about,” he says. The concern is that guests will forget to tip on tokens, or else just tip less when the work of making a cocktail isn’t right in front of them. After all, even a bartender that can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week without complaint—or benefits—can still be terminated if they aren’t popular with the team.
But for now, bar owners are hopeful that vending machines will help shift customers' perspective. “One of the things people have against cocktail bars in general is the time it takes them to get their drinks,” Arnold reasons. “If you can take that time that is being spent on the drink, shift it to prep time, and have guests get their drinks instantly, well, that’s a win.” And, ideally, it means more business in the same time frame.
While vending machines don’t solve all of a bar’s service issues, they do represent human ingenuity in the quest to make drinking (and serving) alcohol easier. And that’s something we can celebrate—at least until drones start serving us drinks.