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How to order as Buffalo-area breweries, restaurants adopt unusual food ordering methods

When technology improves, things get more complicated.

The days of walking into a bar or restaurant and waiting for a server at your table are going away. Today's new brewery landscape is utilizing text messages, pagers and tablets for pub food.

If you've entered one of the new taprooms around Buffalo, you probably understand. On a recent lunch visit to the Draft Room at the Labatt House with my colleagues, we wandered through the dining room for a table and waited for a server (who would never arrive) before realizing we were supposed to order at the bar, where we would receive a pager. When our food was ready, it would be delivered to the table.

It's not just in Buffalo where new and unusual ordering systems are trending among the craft beer crowd. You could even say Buffalo is relatively late to the game. Breweries and taprooms across the country have been adopting faster, more casual methods for years.

In Washington, the DownTime Taps brewery needed a new law passed before it could open. The owners planned to eliminate servers in the taproom, opting instead for patrons to pour their beers straight from the tap. The state passed the law and the self-service brewery opened in Ferndale, Wash., in 2018, according to My Ferndale News.

A system like that hasn't made its way to Buffalo, yet. But we explored the reasoning for some of these ordering systems and learned the specifics of how to order with ease, in this new brewery landscape.

The Draft Room uses a pager system to deliver food, ordered at the bar, to tables. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The Draft Room, 79 Perry St.

Labatt's mammoth downtown flagship brewery opened in downtown Buffalo last winter. With its glossy bars, abundance of seating, beer cocktails and fancier-than-normal pub food, it isn't set up like a restaurant or a standard bar. The ordering model uses a pager system that has been popularized by breweries across the country.

Menus and silverware are in each table's middle console and at the bar. Guests order at the bar, open a tab with a credit card for food and drink, grab a pager and take it to a table. Servers bring food out as each item is ready. Guests can either close out their tab with them or head to the bar when finished.

General Manager Brian Tierney disagrees that the model is unusual and instead prefers the word "modern." Tierney said the service model is based after several breweries they visited across the country, including Ballast Point in Chicago.

“Let’s get a beer in your hand and talk about the food after,” Tierney said.

[Photos: An inside look at Labatt House]

At Community Beer Works, a text message will let you know your order is ready. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Community Beer Works, 520 7th St.

Previously a hole-in-the-wall taproom, CBW became a larger space with food, drink and an outdoor beer garden when it opened this new location in 2018. With the decision to include food, CBW also decided to adopt a less traditional service option, loosely using Empire Farm Brewing's model in Cazenovia.

“We wanted to stay away from a restaurant feeling," said co-founder Ethan Cox. "We’re a taproom.”

At CBW, guests can order food four ways: from the kiosk, bar, online or with "facilitators" who do what servers do, except serve the food. Guests supply a cellphone number and await a text message alerting them that their food is ready, then retrieve their food from the counter and seat themselves. Facilitators are around to help. Beer can only be ordered at the bar.

The website option is new. Now, patrons who log onto Community Beer Works' Wi-Fi will be redirected to a page where they can look at a menu and order food from their cellphones. The software is called Toast, a sort of digital middleman service.

Cox said the idea is that ordering food would be easier and the atmosphere would remain casual. Diners wouldn't be confined to their seats, waiting for servers.

“It was a little clunky at first because so many people were new to the model,” Cox said. But people came around, and now a few others in the area have adopted a similar model. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

[Related: Introducing Community Beer Works' West Side brewery-taproom]

Walk straight to the kiosk in the back to order food, then wait for a text message. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Tappo Pizza, 166 Chandler St.

Philip Limina, chef and owner of Tappo Pizza, and Rocco Termini, developer of the Chandler Street food-and-drink complex where Tappo Pizza lives, originally settled on their ordering service because they wanted to eliminate tipping pressure.

Similar to Community Beer Works, diners walk up to an ordering kiosk, read the menu on the above board, and order counter-service style, supplying their phone number at the end. They await a text message to let them know that their food is ready. Once they receive the text, they head to an island with heat lamps and take their food from a liaison. Tappo Pizza also uses Toast software.

Meal surcharge at Tappo is different approach to bolstering kitchen pay

Since no one serves the food – silverware, water, napkins and to-go boxes are all serve-yourself – they didn't expect people to tip. But people tip anyway, so they changed their staff from hourly employees to wait-staff employees, meaning that they now rely on tips.

"It's like a big city, brewery concept," Limina said. "You have a tasting room, with basically a pizza bar."

The menu at Ballyhoo is straightforward and simple to use, plus it's fun, said  co-owner Timothy Stevens.

Ballyhoo, 211 South Park Ave.

At Ballyhoo, ordering food is as simple as checking a box. Patrons fill out a paper checklist and hand it back to the bartender. Once the food is ready, guests sit and eat at the bar or on picnic tables on the side patio.

The menu is limited –  a few sausages, some sides, a dessert – and the kitchen is small, so co-owner Timothy Stevens said that their ordering system is in place for necessity; there's also no room for a hostess. 

"It's fun and it's a little more interactive," Stevens said.

Ballyhoo has had this system since its opening in 2014. Stevens said that the checklist is inspired by sushi bars, such as Kuni's on Lexington Avenue. Buffalo Tai Chi Bubble Tea in Tonawanda uses a similar checklist ordering method.

[Related: At Ballyhoo, links and drinks in a classic-cool setting]

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