EXCLUSIVE: Hilton profits from ‘Ripple effect’ as specialist kit packs a punch with punters

A Wifi-enabled countertop device that prints beautiful high-resolution images and messages directly onto any foam-topped drink is providing operators with a completely new way to interact and engage with customers. Hilton London Tower Bridge, in the shadow of The Shard, is among the big names to have spotted its potential. FEJ headed over to find out how the equipment is giving it a point of differentiation in a competitive market.

It is not uncommon for catering equipment manufacturers to insist that their products deliver an ‘experience’ for customers, but in the case of Ripples and its flagship Ripple Maker there is a strong argument that it genuinely does.

Using technology that has been in development for a decade, but which has only been made into a viable commercial proposition since it received seed funding three years ago, the system can ‘print’ any image or text atop the foam layer of coffees and cocktails.

The unit, which prints in a matter of seconds using a coffee-based extract ‘ink’, is beginning to catch the attention of the hospitality market, with Lavazza, Marco Polo Hotels, Shangri-La, The Four Seasons and Starwood among the early adopters. In the UK, Hilton London Tower Bridge is also using one and there’s every chance that more of the hotel chain’s sites could purchase them in the future.

James Ross, director of operations at the Hilton London Tower Bridge — and previously the site’s F&B manager — has played a intrinsic role in making sure the hotel’s TwoRuba Bar and Restaurant is getting the most from its investment in a Ripple Maker.

It has had the system installed for around four months and admits the equipment was brought to its attention by Hilton’s food and beverage operations director for Europe and Israel, Anthony Worrall. He was visiting one of the group’s overseas sites when he was served a cocktail with his face on.

The Ripple Maker can print text and graphics on any foam-topped beverage.

“We caught up not long after that and he was raving about it. I said that we didn’t have one in the UK and there is an opportunity here, so he put us in contact with Ripples and the rest is history,” explains Ross. “It is not the kind of thing that was on the shelf and we decided to go for it; it is one of those that comes from having relationships and contacts with other hotels within our brand.”

Although technically an item of catering equipment, the Ripple Maker sits comfortably front-of-house, taking up a footprint of just 8.5 inches by 10.5 inches. As soon as Hilton brought it into TwoRuba, Ross quickly identified the extent of its potential.

It is not the kind of thing that was on the shelf and we decided to go for it; it is one of those that comes from having relationships and contacts with other hotels within the Hilton brand”

“For us, there are three fundamental phases for it,” he says. “For a start there are the conference applications — we host high level conferences and they have private drinks reception, so you’ve got the ability to personalise drinks in terms of printing logos and things like that. Then there is the part that fits into our marketing strategy, such as when we do seasonal cocktails and themed events throughout the year. And then the third stage is the more personal integrated use with the bar, which is the phase that we are going onto now. I suppose at the start we were being a little bit selfish and we wanted to keep it for special occasions, so we launched it slowly and have looked to get value from it.”

Staff and customers can select from an extensive content library of images, or upload their own images or designs to the machine through an app. During Halloween it printed images of spiders and cobwebs on special themed cocktails, while one customer used it to deliver a marriage proposal. As more people download the app, Hilton expects demand for personalised prints to rocket.

Is one unit going to be enough when the bar is at its peak? “I guess so, but we’ll see!” says Ross. “I have two cocktail barmen on most nights, and three on busy nights, and it is mainly waiter service anyway, plus the machine prints in about 10 seconds.”

The Ripple Maker prints using a completely natural, additive-free coffee extract.

What about from a profitability point of view — will a piece of equipment like this help TwoRuba to increase its margins on cocktails? Ross replies: “I think there is opportunity to exploit that. We have really gone down the social media route — making it a talking point and something for the bar to be synonymous with. I suppose you could put a premium on the cocktail, although I don’t think we will, it is more of a driver. Where we have done autumn cocktails and Christmas cocktails, we have not charged anymore because it has got a print on it, though we might sell more because it is on there.

“I think as more people see it, and we get more enquiries for conferencing and things like that, you could have a customer order a package that would come with a barman and a machine. So it might be a conversion tool as opposed to a tool where we are actually making money from it. We wouldn’t have got the business without it, but we are not necessarily charging more for it.”

Many of Ripples’ customers currently use the system on coffees, particularly capuccinos, but Hilton London Tower Bridge has focused it towards cocktails. That is likely to change, however. “We operate quite a big conference business and we do a lot of final detail meetings and show-arounds and there is a great wow factor when a cappuccino gets brought over with a company logo on it. I think once we fully integrate the system with the cocktails it would be silly not to use it during the day as well. It sits on top of cappuccinos really well.”

I know at the last general managers’ conference there were a few Ripple Makers being demonstrated so everybody has seen it”

TwoRuba is one of Hilton’s ‘destination’ bars, which are typically high-end, independently branded bars that sit under the group’s umbrella but are ultimately afforded greater autonomy. How does that play out when it comes to food equipment specification — a group like Hilton must enforce some rigorous guidelines?

“There are two aspects to that question. You’re right, when you have a big brand, getting in new equipment and doing new things has to comply with a very stringent brand standard criteria. However, destination bars fall outside of that and that is why we have our own menus, independency with various things we can do, and we are not measured on the same brand standards and criteria.

“Food safety, however, is the blanket under the hotel that it comes in and as long as the nominated supplier meets all the relevant checks, there is no issue. With this machine, the ink is a coffee extract, which is obviously purified and protected so there is no chance of any food safety issues with that. And the machine doesn’t physically touch any part of the glass or cup.”

TwoRuba Bar and Restaurant at the Hilton London Tower Bridge has boosted customer engagement by installing a Ripple Maker.

Ross is not in a position to comment on whether the Ripple Maker will be rolled out across other Hilton venues, although he reveals there is a growing awareness of the technology within the business.

“I can’t speak on behalf of Hilton, but I know at the last general managers’ conference there were a few Ripple Makers being demonstrated so everybody has seen it,” he says.Within the Hilton group, each hotel typically makes its own decisions when it comes to equipment, notes Ross. “Our F&B director, who is in charge of food and beverage for the UK as an entirety, has an influence and we sit in on monthly conference calls with all the other hotels and talk about these kind of things and that is how we get projects rolling in general. There have been a few projects that have started in one hotel and then rolled out through others, so never say never!”

Ross admits Hilton London Tower Bridge is delighted to be such an early adopter of the equipment. More importantly, he’s over the moon with the impact it has made. “It sparks so much conversation. No matter how you explain it to people that you can put something on a cocktail, it’s not until you see the level of detail on the graphics that you realise. It genuinely does have the ‘wow’ factor.”

Ripple maker: What you need to know

What is the Ripple Maker?

The Ripple Maker is a Wifi-enabled countertop device that prints images on top of a variety of foam-topped drinks, including coffees and cocktails.

Who manufactures it?

The Ripple Maker is made by Steam CC, a privately held, venture-backed company. The device is manufactured by a Dutch company in a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in China.

How does the Ripple Maker work?

It works by combining patented 3D printer mechanics with Inkjet printing technologies. The beverage is placed on a self-rising tray and then the image or text is selected from the screen on the machine. It takes just a few seconds to select and print each design. 

Do staff need much training to use the machine?

No, the manufacturer claims the Ripple Maker can be mastered in minutes. There is no need to set aside time for lengthy training sessions. But perfect foam with minimal or micro-bubbles is key.

What does the Ripple Maker print with?

The ‘ink’ is coffee extract, dispensed from a ‘Ripple Pod’. A single Ripple Pod will create approximately 500 prints. Ripple Pods are included with customer subscriptions and are re-supplied as per individual customer requirements.

How do you get more Ripple Pods when they run out?

Ripple Pods aren’t sold individually, they’re included as part of an operator’s subscription. Ripples tracks the machine’s status and will automatically ship new Ripple Pods before they are needed.

Will the Ripple Maker change the taste of a customer’s drink?

Because each print is created from a minuscule amount of coffee extract, there is no effect on the quality or flavour of the beverage being enjoyed. The manufacturer claims the added caffeine content within each print is ‘negligible’.

How regularly do Ripple Makers need servicing and who does it?

Ripple Makers do not require regularly scheduled maintenance. Operators just need to wipe down the drip tray at the end of each day. All machines are backed by a one-year warranty.

How quickly can an operator expect to see a return on investment from its Ripple Maker?

Customers that charge their customers for adding Ripples to their drink report full ROI in only three to five months, according to the company. Customers who utilise Ripples as part of their customer experience programme say that for the minimal cost that the Ripples platform entails, it represents the highest ROI of their programme.

How much does the Ripple Maker cost?

Ripples recommends the selling price as €2,000 (approx £1,850) and a 12-month subscription for the Ripple Pods starts at €1,200 (approx. £1,140). Each Ripples customer has their own account, which allows them to manage their subscription and orders. The Ripple Maker’s on-board computer monitors ink levels and will automatically send a notification to Ripples when it is time to dispatch a new Ripple Pod to the customer, which minimises the need to store Ripple Pods as well as wastage.

The Ripples system, comprising the Ripple Maker device and the 12-month subscription, is offered as a package, and cost will slightly vary depending on the usage, but each Ripple Pod can produce 500-600 printed designs. The product is sold to the trade through JetChill in the UK.

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