By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
There’s a new way to serve beer in Washington. And it all started in Ferndale.
Chay Tan and Tomas Aminnie opened Downtime Taps at the end of June. It’s the first self-serve taproom in the state, and it’s drawing people from beyond Whatcom County’s borders to try it out.
“We decided to go this route because it was interactive,” Tan said. “I often describe is as Menchies for an adult.”
When customers arrive at Downtime, they check in at the register with their credit card and their ID. Then they receive a wristband with and RFID chip in it. Customers then walk up to the beer wall, which has 32 different taps, grab a glass and pick their beer, wine or cider. They press their wristband up against a sensor at the tap they want, which activates the tap. They can now pour themselves as much or as little as they want. The system keeps track of how much of each beverage they get, and charges them accordingly when it’s time to check out at the end.
Tan said the self-serve system solves a number of the problems that customers have said they don’t like about traditional taprooms.
“Everyone loves the idea of going to a taproom, meeting up with friends and having a drink,” Tan said. “That’s what everyone loves about a taproom.”
What they don’t love, however, is having to wait in long lines for a drink. And at the end of a night, after a customer has already had a few, sometimes a whole new pint is just too much. This system allows them to pour however little they want.
Staff also love it, Tan said, because IDs are scanned, so there’s less pressure to spot fake ones. Also, the system automatically cuts off customers after 24 ounces. Customers have to ask a staff member if they want more drinks after that.
And since the customer’s card is already on file, checking out is fast and easy.
“The electronic system, it simplifies the operations of a taproom a lot,” Tan said. “It makes being owner-operators a lot easier. You can focus on working on your business and interacting with customers rather than pouring.”
Customers can try any beer, wine or cider they like without having to commit to a full pint or glass, and they can try as much or as little as they like.
“Some customers walk in and say ‘I don’t know what I like’,” Aminnie said. “This is perfect for you because you can get one ounce here, one ounce there, six ounces there, and really play around with the system and figure out what you like.”
Aminnie and Tan are also looking forward to introducing customers to as many new beers as possible.
“We don’t ever tap the same beer once it runs out, so we’re constantly rotating our lineup,” Tan said. “It’s changing on a daily basis almost.”
Since opening, they’ve found that cider and wine have also been popular, and they’ve expanded their selection of those as well.
Aminnie first discovered the self-serve technology when he was traveling on the East Coast a few years ago.
He brought the idea back to Tan, his former boss. Tan co-owns the Coconut Kenny’s chain of restaurants along with his brother. Aminnie worked for them for several years.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” Tan said. “I love investing in great ideas and I thought that this was a great idea.”
Self-serve taprooms were springing up in a number of states, but Washington’s policy about self-service were so cumbersome that it effectively made opening a taproom like that impossible.
So, Tan and Aminnie appealed to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board to change the policy.
“It wasn’t tough, it was just a matter of explaining what we wanted to do,” Tan said. “Once it was all explained and presented to them they understood and were on board.”
The new policy went into place in early June, which allowed Downtime Taps to open its doors at its location at 1740 Labounty Drive, in downtown Ferndale.
“We chose to open in Ferndale because I live in Ferndale and do business in Ferndale and it’s a great town that lacked great brew, wine and cider options,” Tan said. Bellingham is already known for its beer scene, Tan said, but Ferndale still has a lot of potential.
Ferndale has been wanting for a taproom since Maggie’s Pub closed last year.
“Admittedly, there was a selfish part of me that did it. Because I live in Ferndale and my friends and I always complained about not having a place to go in Ferndale since Maggie’s closed,” Tan said. “So I solved a problem for a lot of my friends.”
In building the space, Tan and Aminnie set out to create a community gathering place, that will draw customers for more reasons than the novelty of the self-serve system.
“We didn’t just rely on self-serve so much that didn’t care about anything else we did in the establishment,” Aminnie said.
They also focused on creating a comfortable environment that offers great service. Since the taproom’s eight employees aren’t constantly busy pouring beer and taking orders, they have more time to interact with customers, talk about beer and make recommendations.
Since the self-serve model is so new, it has lots of potential in Washington. In changing the law, Downtime has paved the way for other self-serve taprooms to open. Tan said a number of people have already inquired about opening their own self-serve taproom.
“The self-serve business is an untapped thing, particularly in Washington State,” Tan said. He also didn’t rule out the possibility of Downtime Taps opening another location, some time in the future.
“We definitely want to see where the business goes and see if we can expand on it,” he said.