There are few relationships as sacred as that between a favorite bartender and her regulars. Three locals are hoping to capitalize on the strength of those relationships through their smart phone app onthebar. Among other features, onthebar allows users to follow favorite bartenders, find out when and where they are working, and to check-in when they visit. Recently chosen as a finalist for the prestigious MassChallenge startup accelerator program, onthebar co-founder Ian Stanczyk spoke with Eater as the team prepares to move into the MassChallenge offices for the next four months. Read on to see how Stanczyk's desire to hang out with a college buddy has led to an app now used by nearly 2,000 bartenders.
What is onthebar?
onthebar is a bat signal for bartenders. Bartenders light it and draw their regulars into the bar. It's an app that connects bartenders with their regulars to let customers know where and when their favorite people are working, with the hope of driving repeat business to bars and restaurants. It's based on the philosophy that people and relationships matter way more than star ratings when locals decide where to go out. onthebar is a manifestation of the belief that I'm going to have a better experience if I go someplace where I know the staff and they know me.
How will onthebar generate revenue?
As it turns out the spirits industry is very interested in what we're doing and we've been testing a rewards system for bartenders with some major spirit brands.
Any time I use my phone, I'm bombarded by websites trying to get me to download their app and I ignore them all without thinking about it. Most dedicated drinkers in this town know they're going to get a good drink at say, Eastern Standard regardless of who they happen to sit down in front of. How are you going to get those people to install and use your app?
We do very little of the sort of promotion you're talking about. When people have a good experience, they'll ask their bartender, "When do you work?" The answer is changing from, "Sometimes this day and that day but next week my schedule got swapped so..." to "Download onthebar and follow me and then you'll just know." It's a useful tool for bartenders so they tell the people who would want it but don't yet know that it exists.
To your other point, onthebar is less about "getting a good drink" and more about having an elevated experience. It comes back to our philosophy of relationships driving repeat business. As John Gertsen said in his TEDx talk on the history of cocktails, "Sure, what's in the glass is intoxicating ... but this is not the key, the key should be community." Take your example of Eastern Standard. You can get a properly made Au Provence from anyone on staff, but sit down with someone you're friendly with - who knows your taste and a bit of your story - and you're going to have a better experience than with someone you've never met. The folks making drinks there are humans with personalities and interests and specialties. They're not automatons who just spit out "good drinks." Those relationships are no more or less valid at cocktail bar Eastern Standard than they are down the street at beer bar The Lower Depths. It's not about "good drinks," it's about "good people."
Where did the idea for onthebar come from?
It was entirely selfish. I roomed with Ted Kilpatrick (bar director at No. 9 Park) in college. After college, he went into the bar business, and I was working a 9-to-5. We had opposite schedules and could never hang out. The only time I could see the guy was when I'd visit him at his bar. Unfortunately, he's impossible to get in touch with while working so I never knew for sure where he was and that uncertainty often kept me on the couch. His bar was losing my business because I didn't know whether or not he was there. I thought, "He just needs a button on his phone that he can push every time he starts a shift that will create a beacon for me and anyone else who gives a damn so we can go visit him." So, that's what I built in the summer of 2011. TJ Connelly (DJ for the Red Sox) joined that fall and Anthony Roldan (lead mobile developer at HubSpot) joined the following spring.
What kind of reaction have you seen from bartenders and guests?
We started with two bartenders back at the end of 2011, Ted at No. 9 and Sean Frederick at Citizen Public House. Now we have around 2,000 bartenders at over 1,000 bars and restaurants - mostly in and around Boston. Six months ago a good night would have 50 or 75 bartenders onthebar simultaneously. Today a good night is 250 or 300. It turns out we were right, relationships really do matter and influence decision-making. Our most popular bartenders have hundreds of regulars following them. Every time Misty Kalkofen of Brick & Mortar hits that button, 450 people around the city get a notification letting them know she's working and some of them go visit her.
Tell us about being a finalist for MassChallenge and what that means.
MassChallenge is the world's largest startup accelerator. It provides office space, guidance, and funding opportunities to the most promising young companies it can find. We were selected from over 1,200 startup companies from around the world as one of the 120 or so finalists that make up the 2013 accelerator class. Since 2010, MassChallenge companies have raised over $350M in funding and created over 3,000 jobs. We had to submit a lengthy application and then pitch our business to a room full of judges, Shark Tank style. Next week, we'll move into the MassChallenge space and, for the next four months, they'll help us grow the business. It's a tremendous opportunity for us and to have been selected is a huge honor in the tech world. I think it's really telling that an app for bartenders was selected. It's a symptom of how the food service industry is changing and how fine dining and celebrity chefs have given way to fine drinking and celebrity bartenders.