Mix it up, Robot Bartender

PERFORMERS in the style of Daft Punk may no longer be the only robots at music festivals. Thanks to a whiz-kid’s home-grown startup, the bartender might be one, too.

Tushar Mohan, 24, has cooked up an automated drink dispensing system – capable of mixing cocktails and air bandung alike – that his firm, Souschef, offers for hire.

Different storage containers each hold an ingredient and food and beverage (F&B) providers can program drinks recipes down to the volume or weight of each component.

The fresh graduate, whose invention began life as a household ingredient dispenser, has raised S$85,000 in venture capital since setting up shop in September 2016.

“We realised that there was a market but it was not big enough to turn our food automation prototype into a product,” says Mr Mohan, who is both co-founder and CEO of Souschef.

“So that’s when we started to look into potential markets where a similar idea could be applied. The beverage market was clearly defined… and when it came to the alcoholic beverage segment, cocktail automation was not something that was popular.”

The company now leases three of its seven units to businesses in the hospitality industry, while the rest are available for event rentals. The first eatery to come on board was FabCafe Singapore, at the ArtScience Museum, last September.

Cafe co-founder Wouter van Hest tells The Business Times that the selling point of Souschef – which can mix a fresh cup every six to seven seconds – is how customisable it is from event to event, compared to a traditional soda fountain.

“There was a client who wanted a Hawaiian theme,” Mr van Hest recalls. “They asked us the night before: ‘By the way, we have 300 people coming for a party tomorrow night. Can you do Hawaiian drinks?’

“And all we had to do was fire up the interface and tell the machine – different liquids, mix them in this batch. And away we went.”

Mr Mohan dubs this mix-and-match ability his product’s value proposition, adding: “This customisability allows our clients to pick and choose what functions they want.”

On top of an electronics diploma from Temasek Polytechnic and a product design undergraduate degree from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, he has two years of side hustles as a sandwich maker and a bartender under his belt.

This experience has given him valuable insights into the industry’s culture. “Now it’s just either vending machines or human service – there’s nothing in the middle – and we feel we fall in the centre, where it’s a vending machine that we’re using to provide better-quality service,” he says.

Diverting the target

Still, when it comes to food or drink, “people are more conservative about how it’s being served or how people consume it, so any new idea or something different creates a resistance”.

“So that’s why we’re now slowly diverting our target. Rather than targeting F&B owners – that means bars or restaurants – we are targeting more corporate pantries or events, because for them, F&B is not the primary objective; it’s more about the overall experience for the guests.”

Just last month, Singapore Airlines took Souschef on board for a one-month pilot in its SilverKris lounges. “We were attracted to it as a way of enhancing the experience of our customers through the automated provision of customised cocktails, and as a way to support local startups,” a spokesman told BT.

“Customers have generally provided positive feedback to date, with many of them intrigued by the machine.”

Still, Mr Mohan is on the fence about whether Souschef will end up as a product for the consumer market. He calls the invention “ideal as a value-added service” at the moment. “If we sell any machines right now, it comes with a post-maintenance contract and things like that, so we feel we are not ready yet to sell the machines long-term,” he explains.

On top of that, units cost roughly S$3,000 to S$4,000 apiece – although he expects that price to drop below S$1,000 once his brainchild makes the leap to higher-volume production. The pumps are imported, but “every other part is made in house” at a flatted factory in Ayer Rajah.

Besides perfecting the Souschef model, the digital native also already has plans to expand into providing beverage brands with marketing and consumer data, using the findings from his machines.

“Right now, the market’s pricing model is very much static,” Mr Mohan says. “If you go to any bar, their menu is fixed, the pricing is fixed – it’s not dynamic to the time or the crowd it’s going to cater to.

Data dynamics

“We want to be able to provide this kind of data to brands as well as owners – to say that we feel that if you sell one glass of tequila at 7pm, at this rate, you will have the maximum (amount) of sales.”

Having spent roughly half the capital raised, Mr Mohan is eyeing another round of investment in late 2018.

He hopes to reap a revenue of at least S$20,000 from event rentals in the first quarter, and to break even by the end of the year.

But as much as partygoers may “ooh” and “aah” over having their drinks mixed by a machine, Mr Mohan stresses that the human touch must go hand in hand with the newfound convenience of automation.

“F&B can be good only if people take it seriously, because it’s a service industry, like hospitality,” he says.

“We started out as a tech company, but recently, we’ve been portraying ourselves as more of a tech-enabled service company, because ultimately, we’re trying to solve problems from a service point of view using technology.”

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