Self-serve wine and beer spark social interaction and high beverage sales at SoBou in New Orleans, a veritable “third place” that serves serious food and beverage, according to its owner.
SoBou, short for south of Bourbon Street, opened this summer with pour-your-own options in addition to conventional service. Guests who want to serve themselves gravitate to the bar or beer garden on the left side of the restaurant. If they prefer full table service, they choose the dining room on the right.
So far, the idea is working so well that the Louisiana-inspired, small-plates concept boasts a beverage mix significantly higher than its long-established siblings in the Commander’s Palace Family of Restaurants: Commander’s Palace and Café Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar in New Orleans and Brennan’s of Houston.
“Normally, the split is 70 percent food and 30 percent beverage in our restaurants, almost no matter what type of restaurant we do,” said co-owner Ti Adelaide Martin. “But this place is 50-50.”
Self-serve beer or wine dispensers are found in a variety of sports bars, wine bars and cocktail lounges today. But SoBou stands out as a sleekly designed, full-service restaurant offering both technologies plus a street food-inspired menu with Creole, Cajun and Southern influences.
“People probably are not used to seeing them in our type of restaurant,” Martin said.
In addition to serving an array of craft cocktails and wines by the bottle and glass at the bar and table, SoBou offers 16 bottles, eight reds and eight whites, in a wine preservation and dispensing machine near the bar. The labels are premium, ranging from Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to French Sancerre and Oregon Pinot Noir.
To pour wine, a patron swipes an electronic card purchased from the cashier, holds the glass under the spigot and presses a button to choose a one-, three- or six-ounce pour.
Pouring your own is not only intrinsically fun, it’s also a great way to learn about wine, Martin said.
“If tonight you have Albariño and tomorrow you have Gruner Veltliner, it is very hard to compare the two,” said Martin. “The only way really is to taste them right next to each other.”
In the beer garden, customers vie to sit at a trio of six-top tables, each equipped with three built-in beer taps, helping themselves to metered pours of local and national brews.
As they sample, SoBou patrons tend to move about the dining room and bar, socializing more than they ordinarily would in a restaurant, Martin noted.
“The other thing that I love about the wine machine is that it forces some interaction,” said Martin. “You get a kick showing people how it works and you get to talking in a more comfortable way.”
With all the hobnobbing, SoBou has a “third place” feel, Martin said, using the term for a comfortable social environment apart from the home and workplace.
“It has a somewhat different feel than a typical restaurant,” said Martin. “You may come to eat in the restaurant and hang out later in the bar or the beer garden. It is something that is fitting people’s lifestyles.”