Libation automation: L.V. investors’ Smartender mixes cocktails at touch of a button

Real estate developer Barry Fieldman with his new venture, the automated cocktail maker called a Smartender, on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016.

Barry Fieldman is known in Las Vegas for developing Showcase mall, the retail property decorated with a giant Coke bottle and M&M’s along the Strip.

Now he’s on another mission: Overhaul the bartending business with rapid-fire, machine-made cocktails.

Fieldman’s company Smart Bar USA makes the Smartender, a $25,000, touch-screen bar on wheels that holds 16 liquor bottles and 15 pounds of ice and can make at least 600 different drinks. A modular, bar-top unit sells for $22,500, with another $1,500 for installation and training.

Barry Fieldman With His Smartender

Real estate developer Barry Fieldman with his new venture, the automated cocktail maker called a Smartender, on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Launch slideshow »

The machine makes a beverage in six seconds and pours within 1/16th of an ounce on “every single drink,” Fieldman said.

As he sees it, the Smartender can serve more people faster, and with precise control, letting a bar sell more drinks and a server make more tips.

“The idea of being able to do something quickly, inexpensively and efficiently is very valuable,” he said.

Fieldman and business partner Juanita Wasserman, both of Henderson, took control of Smart Bar after battling in court with the company’s founder, and they plan to move its manufacturing and assembly operations from Illinois to Las Vegas in coming months.

The local bartenders union isn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of seeing Smartenders making drinks, saying automated-cocktail makers can wipe out bartending jobs. But, it seems, patrons who enjoy chatting with bartenders at neighborhood watering holes shouldn’t worry that their drink slingers will be replaced by machines anytime soon.

Fieldman’s target customers include movie theaters, casinos, restaurant chains and stadiums, not local bars. He’s going after clients that can easily afford his product and might want it to serve a few thousand drinks a day, whether it’s helping order-slammed bartenders out front, making drinks in the kitchen for servers to pick up, or wheeling it poolside at a hotel.

“We’re not everything to all people,” he said.

Smart Bar has distributed about 100 units nationwide, almost all outside Southern Nevada. Locally, Smartenders are in Downtown Summerlin’s Regal movie theater, the Cosmopolitan, the Tropicana and the California Pizza Kitchen in the Mirage, Fieldman said.

He expects to sell more than 100 units this year alone, including more than 50 to the Regal movie-theater chain. He recently received an order to send Smartenders to Sugar Factory locations around the country, including in New York and Miami, he said.

Spokespeople for Regal Entertainment Group, California Pizza Kitchen, dessert chain Sugar Factory and Tropicana owner Penn National Gaming did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the Cosmopolitan declined to comment.

Despite being able to pour hundreds of different drinks, the Smartender has limitations.

It can’t make frozen drinks or complicated, labor-intensive concoctions, and servers still have to put in ice cubes and limes, cherries or other garnishes by hand. And even though it holds 16 bottles of booze, a typical bar may have “16 different brands of vodka” alone, said Terry Greenwald, secretary-treasurer of UniteHere Bartenders Local 165 in Las Vegas.

The machine makes one drink at a time, whereas bartenders can line up several glasses at once to fill up, said Aria bartender Nick Houck, a member of Local 165’s executive board.

Bar guns can already dispense water, soda and juice, letting bartenders quickly make a wide range of drinks. Such guns are “more efficient” than automated-drink makers, he said.

“Rum-and-Cokes don’t slow me down; it’s the complicated drinks that slow me down that these machines can’t make,” he said.

Meanwhile, Smart Bar marketing materials say its product "saves money on labor costs."

“No need for a professional bartender because now any staff member can pour drinks during peak times, happy hours, sporting events, etc.,” a brochure says. “The staff no longer has to wait for the bartender to fill each order. They can do it themselves.”

Fieldman said the Smartender cannot replace all bartenders. However, he said it could “eliminate some labor costs in certain environments,” such as replacing a back-of-house service bartender or an extra bartender who’d be out front on busy nights to help fill orders.

But, he said, “usually when you eliminate one job, you create another,” including in manufacturing, sales and repairs.

“All of those things create other jobs, and some of them may be union, some of them may not,” he said.

This past fall, the Beau Rivage hotel-casino in Biloxi, Miss., started using automated-cocktail makers, said Houck, who was trying to organize bartenders at another casino in Biloxi at the time.

The Beau Rivage, owned by Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International, ended up laying off bartenders, according to Houck.

“The bartenders down there called it ‘The Terminator,’” he said.

MGM Resorts spokesman Gordon Absher said four positions were eliminated at the Beau Rivage, and he indicated the property is using the Easybar brand.

"Like most businesses, we continuously evaluate our operations and seek opportunities through technology and other resources to improve how we deliver guest service," he said in a statement.

He noted, however, that company officials have not decided whether to expand its use beyond the Biloxi casino.

Fieldman said he learned about the Smartender in 2012 through the Tropicana’s food and beverage director, who introduced him to its inventor, William Metropulos.

He said he was intrigued by its “total control over quality, that drinks would be made the same way every single time.”

Fieldman and Wasserman put $3 million into the company. But the investors and the inventor ended up in court.

Metropulos sued Fieldman and Wasserman in late 2013 in Illinois state court. He alleged in court filings that Wasserman wrongly interfered with a potential sale of his stake in the company and tried to steer the deal to one of her own investors at a cheaper price. He also alleged that Fieldman made “intentional false statements” about his “connection to juggernauts in the hospitality and beverage industries.”

According to a court filing by Metropulos, Fieldman had said he would arrange sales meetings with Coca-Cola executives, that he knew “every casino operator” on the Strip and would get the Smartender placed “in all of the casinos and restaurants,” and that his kids went to school with casino presidents’ kids.

“Metropulos is fairly new to the industry, and his need for marketing and sales was immediate,” his lawyer David Trout wrote in the filing. “At that time, it would have been foolish for Metropulos to pass on the chance of a lifetime to be involved” with such companies.

The dispute went to arbitrator Mitchell Marinello, who sided with Fieldman's group.

Marinello wrote that Metropulos "had significant credibility problems" and paid himself and some associates "six-figure salaries" and "personally took additional payments totaling at least $350,000" from funds provided by Fieldman and Wasserman, according to a copy of the findings provided by Fieldman.

Marinello wrote that, after spending "well over $2 million" of the investors' money "and having little or nothing to show for it," Metropulos "refused to abide by even modest and typical controls on travel spending," even though his investors had the right, under their operating agreement, to curtail spending if sales quotes were not met.

Among other things, the arbitrator "disassociated" Metropulos from Smart Bar and stripped him from the management team, and he said Metropulos had to pay $250,000 to Fieldman and Wasserman, and, apparently, about $100,600 to Smart Bar.

Metropulos could not be reached for comment. Trout said litigation was pending but that he was not involved with it.

“It is a long way from being over, but I have no comment,” he said.

All told, Fieldman said he and his investors had put $5 million into Smart Bar — including $1 million in legal fees.

But he has big plans. For instance, he's working to move company operations to Southern Nevada.

There are seven people working for Smart Bar in Illinois. After the company relocates to Las Vegas, Fieldman said, that number “will go up significantly.”