Technology has improved almost everything about the experience of going out to a bar: Plan your night with a group text, get there in an Uber, split the bill on Venmo, and document it all on Instagram.
But getting a drink in a crowded bar? It's still just as much of a hassle as ever. First, shout your order over the din, then pay with cash and wait around for change, use a credit card and wait for the receipt, or start a tab and try to remember to close it out at the end of the night.
Three recent Wharton graduates intend to change that with a new app, BeerMe, that they've launched at a half-dozen Philadelphia bars this summer. They think it will transform how we drink, and how bars do business.
Cofounder Evan Glickman, 27, said he began daydreaming of a better way to get a beer while waiting - and waiting - to order at a bar during the 2014 World Cup.
"I was out with friends, and someone got the first round. I was supposed to get the second, and it was way too crowded at the bar. I had cash and credit cards, and there were bottles of beer sitting over there. But it just wasn't going to happen," he said.
His first idea was something like Amazon Dash: He'd push a button, and "someone would throw me a beer." It wasn't practical.
He began working with fellow Wharton students Mark Kozlowski, 27, and Ted Lui, 27, to evaluate other ideas: An app that would integrate with bars' point-of-sale systems, maybe, or an app that would allow users to order in advance so their drinks would be waiting for them. (Both had drawbacks: there are too many kinds of such systems in use, and too many variables - melting ice, potential tampering - with making drinks in advance).
Besides, Glickman said, "When we analyzed what actually happens, most of a bartender's time is not spent giving someone a drink. Unless it's at a cocktail bar, it's not making the drink, either. . . . The payment method is the biggest bottleneck."
That's what BeerMe attempts to solve.
It works like this: A user stores his credit card information on the app, secured by PayPal. Then he selects from a list of bars filtered by location, chooses drinks from a limited menu, and shows the phone screen to the bartender. The bartender reviews the order and types in a code to complete the transaction (a 20 percent tip is included). Then alcohol is delivered.
According to BeerMe's calculations, that cuts the average transaction time from 90 seconds to 20 seconds, Kozlowski said. (It also increases the average tip of around 13 percent.)
A reporter tried the app at the PHS Pop-Up Garden at the Viaduct Rail Park. The transaction was brief and unremarkable - which is more or less what you'd want in a payment system.
Mitch Gainer, 26, first encountered the app at Field House in Center City and was an instant convert. Last Thursday, the Wharton student was attending a back-to-school event that BeerMe had organized at the Irish Pub, near Rittenhouse Square.
"It's definitely faster to get the bartender's attention, and I like not having to close out my tab at the end of the night. Every bar I go to, I check to see if they have it," Gainer said.
"They have a lot of specials that make you want to come to these bars. On a night like this, if it's early and we're kind of indifferent about where to go, and they run a special on the app, 200 people will show up."
Current partners include nightclubs Coda and Recess, Smokey Joe's near the University of Pennsylvania campus, and Field House, Irish Pub, and Bonner's in Center City. Glickman hopes to add about five more bars in the next few weeks. But as BeerMe is promising users their first drink free, they're looking for funding before they attempt to scale up across Philadelphia and then to other cities.
The app isn't a moneymaker yet, but the hope is BeerMe will eventually take a cut - maybe 25 cents - of bars' proceeds from each drink purchase.
It could be worth it to bar managers like Caitlin Welge, at the PHS Pop-Up Garden.
BeerMe still represents a small portion of her sales, but it's popular among her staff.
"It takes out the step of ringing up the order," she said. "If you're busy, you don't have to explain things to people. It's all listed on the app: It says the ingredients on the cocktails and a description of the beers."
She gets a text at the end of each night logging her sales and the tips owed to each bartender.
Todd O'Connor, beverage director at the Field House, was so intrigued by the app he offered to work with BeerMe as an adviser.
"It could really change how people can get beer or cocktails at a bar or concert or private event, or at festivals like Made in America," he said.
He noted the potential for using it to replace drink tickets at corporate events, or instead of wristbands at bar crawls.
"Bartenders in high-volume atmospheres are extremely receptive to it, because we lose a lot of time finding credit cards," he said. "People who've been in the bar industry for a while really understand that speed is everything."
But what will the order-by-phone era mean for the traditional station of the bartender as confidante, psychologist, and spiritual adviser?
Welge acknowledged the app can change the dynamic at the bar.
"A lot of times people are a little weirded out that you're not really talking, and people will make jokes about it," she said.
But, she added, "People still have the option to communicate."