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Raising and automating the bar

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(Mike Greene ())
Mike Greene - mgreene@shawmedia.com Tim Knecht, co-owner and engineering managercat Smart Bar, runs diagnostic tests on a new unit Friday, July 13, 2012 at Smart Bar's offices in Crystal Lake.
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(Mike Greene ())
Mike Greene - mgreene@shawmedia.com Smart Bar engineer Fred Knecht (right) watches as Tim Knecht runs diagnostic tests on a new unit Friday, July 13, 2012 at Smart Bar's offices in Crystal Lake.
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(Mike Greene ())
Mike Greene - mgreene@shawmedia.com Smart Bar CEO and co-owner William Metropulos.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Two and a half years ago, William Metropulos finally sketched onto a napkin the idea that'd been floating around his head for two decades.

Metropulos, 49, had been VP of sales for a company in McHenry, and after he was part of a set of layoffs, his mind went back to the machine he'd always envisioned, the one he'd thought up while watching bartenders struggle during his side gig as a DJ at weddings.

The idea was there for the taking – build a machine that pours the drinks for you. No more fumbling with bottles. No more disappointed customers stiffed on scotch or choking back disproportionately mixed cocktails.

Metropulos wanted to find out if his idea was even doable. So he sketched the thing out and brought it to his friend Tim Knecht, an engineer who was part of the same layoffs as Metropulos.

"I thought it would be worth working on for sure," Knecht said, taking a break from tinkering with a Smart Bar at the company's Crystal Lake headquarters. "I was 100 percent sure, engineering wise, we could do it."

From that point, Metropulos was all in. He'd spend the next two years assembling a small team of designers and engineers, developing prototypes and then sleeping in his van as he drove his product around the country looking for buyers.

The work paid off. The Smart Bar is now in stadiums like Target Field, Lambeau Field and TD Garden, and Las Vegas hotels like Tropicana and The Cosmopolitan. It's set for much wider placement in the second half of this year. Metropulos is currently entertaining interest from Levy Restaurants, a company that manages food services for many stadiums across the country, including local ones like Wrigley Field, U.S. Cellular and the United Center.

The upgraded version of the machine, called the SmarTender, is set to come out July 27. It will be manufactured by Glastender and distributed by TriMark USA – the first time Metropulos has had the demand to outsource either service.

Six months ago, the employees of Smart Bar, who'd been working for free, were finally put on salary. Metropulos now co-owns Smart Bar with Knecht, the company's engineering manager, and lifelong friend Kevin Nevala, VP of sales.

"I was fortunate enough to grab a group of people who saw the vision," Metropulos said.

The Smart Bar is a 68-inch-tall by 40-inch-wide touchscreen, automatic drink maker – currently selling for $17,500 retail – built to assist bartenders or stand alone in hotel or stadium suites. Fill a glass of ice, set it below the machine's spout, choose a drink from more than 700 options, and the Smart Bar pours the cocktail with the same consistency each time. All the while, it keeps statistics on how much supplies are used and what drinks have been poured for owners to review later.

The bottom compartments house 13 mixers and 16 bottles of alcohol, which can be customized to an establishment's preferences. The original prototype included a keg, but since the tap was sharing CO2 with the system to pour mixers, the beer never flowed correctly.

The new SmarTender will feature an upgraded touchscreen system, with icons similar to an iPhone or iPad. Users will have the option to "favorite" drinks, and then access them easier later via the "Favorites" icon.

The company also has started development on a smaller home version, which will be about half the size of the original Smart Bar. Metropulos is confident he'll be able to get the machine sold at Costco, among other stores. A prototype could be ready next summer.

The Spike TV show Bar Rescue will feature Metropulos and the Smart Bar on its July 22 episode.

It's a busy but exciting time for Metropulos, a husband and father of two who went three years without receiving a paycheck after being laid off.

"Fate took me to a different place," he said. "And it worked out better."

Get more info

For more information on the Smart Bar, visit www.mysmartbar.com or call CEO William Metropulos at 815-236-3213

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