Customers serve themselves at this ‘unstaffed’ Salt Lake City taproom. Would you visit?

You’ll need a smartphone and a credit card to enter Renourish Kombucha Tap Room for the first time.

Anytime during business hours, you can find people inside Renourish Kombucha Tap Room, sipping kombucha, socializing, working or browsing through a selection of Utah-made goods.

But what you probably won’t find is a single employee.

That’s because in April, Renourish switched to an “unstaffed” self-serve model — meaning that, for the most part, no one works there.

Owner Raquel Speroni — who opened Renourish Kombucha Tap Room at 1314 S. 500 East in Salt Lake City in December 2022 — usually stops by once daily in order to stock products, change out kegs and make sure everything is clean, she said. But her visits are brief.

[Read more: Kombucha culture is growing in Salt Lake City. Here’s where to try the buzzy drink.]

Most of the time, her taproom and market are run by its customers, who can use their smartphones to unlock the front door and purchase kombucha and other items. They are allowed to walk behind the bar and pour their own kombucha from the 12 taps on the wall, and are welcome to hang out as long as they like.

With Speroni no longer required to always be physically present at the taproom, she’s been able to expand her business hours to 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, including holidays, without having to hire more employees. In fact, she has so much extra time on her hands that she’s been able to get a full-time job, working for another small business in Salt Lake City.

Speroni said she isn’t worried about theft, or about people taking advantage of the model. She said the system has brought about a new sense of community. People have been using the taproom’s alphabet magnets to leave supportive messages such as “Keep growing,” and “Wow, this is dope.”

“I think if you offer somebody a little bit of trust, a little bit of ownership ... people appreciate that and they respond in kind,” she said.

How does it work?

While Renourish’s new model isn’t very familiar to Americans, unstaffed stores are common in such places as Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

For this new system of operating, Speroni partnered with a Swedish tech company, HonestBox, which has helped more than 600 clients transition to an “unmanned” or hybrid model since 2015, according to its website.

The unstaffed model asks people for two things in order to enter Speroni’s taproom for the first time: A smartphone and a credit card.

When you first arrive at the front door, a sign directs you to scan a QR code with your phone’s camera. After tapping on the link that comes up, you have to go through a few steps to verify your identity.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign informs patrons of the unique way to enter Renourish Taproom, a kombucha taproom that recently adopted a "staffless" business model, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.

First, you’re prompted to enter your name and phone number, so HonestBox can send you a four-digit code via text. After you enter the code, the program asks for a credit card number so it can charge you $1. (Speroni said that HonestBox doesn’t store your card’s details, and you’ll receive a coupon for $1 off your first purchase.)

Once all that happens, a button reading “unlock” will pop up on your phone. Tapping this button will unlock the taproom’s door, and you can enter.

Inside is a window-filled space with tables and chairs, and books and plants scattered throughout, along with the kombucha bar.

Typically absent is someone to greet you when you walk in — you can just pour yourself a glass of kombucha and take a seat without any preamble. If you want to purchase anything along with your kombucha, such as a chocolate bar from Millcreek Cacao Roasters or some mushroom hot cocoa mix from Lococo, you just add your selections to your online cart and complete checkout through your phone.

On subsequent visits, you’ll only have to scan the QR code, enter the four-digit code texted to your phone, and then tap “unlock” — no identify verification through your credit card is required.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A patron pours their own glass of kombucha at Renourish Taproom, a kombucha taproom that recently adopted a "staffless" business model, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.

What about security?

There are three cameras in the taproom, Speroni said, and arrivals and departures are time-stamped through HonestBox. She said that if she comes in one day and things look amiss, she can review the camera footage to see who was in the taproom at that time.

“There is a measure of the honesty policy,” she said. “And there’s also some built-in safeties for us to be able to monitor. And we can reach out to people if we feel like something nefarious happened, or we do have the capability to also block users.”

But so far, it hasn’t come to that.

“As a small-business owner, you have to allow for a degree of spills, or of petty theft, or a little bit of mess here and there,” Speroni said. “But there’s been nothing that’s been really alarming that I’ve had to reach out to somebody.”

Speroni said usually when someone has trouble paying, she’ll get a phone call or a message on Instagram. “People have really given me a little bit more faith that people are good and honest. And it’s been really good for me to learn that,” she said.

She opted not to have the taproom be open 24/7, for the safety of the residents who live in the apartment buildings on her corner, to deter people from sleeping in the taproom after hours, and to be able to respond to potential emergencies promptly, she said.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign informs patrons of the unique entry responsibilities for customers at Renourish Taproom, a kombucha taproom that recently adopted a "staffless" business model, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.

What are the pros and cons?

One of the biggest cons, Speroni said, is that entering the taproom is entirely dependent on the internet and technology. If the internet is being glitchy one day but someone wants to get in, they’re out of luck.

The emphasis on technology also isn’t for everyone, especially if they’re wanting human interaction. But Speroni said the new model has brought in “a whole new group of people” who skew younger and are more comfortable with technology, as well as walking into a store and serving themselves.

“I think my base has changed, she said, “but we’ve definitely seen some growth in our numbers.”

A local group called Sober Squad has been meeting at Renourish for about 10 months, and have continued meeting there since the taproom changed to an unstaffed model. Founded by partners Paige Holmgren and Kolten Schnell in July 2023, Sober Squad was started “to help people find community with others who are sober or sober-curious,” Holmgren said.

Sober Squad does a monthly meetup on the first Wednesday of every month. (For details, follow the group on Instagram: @sobersquad.slc.) The group also does a trivia night, hiking, a book club and coffee meetups, said Holmgren, who knows Speroni well.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Various items are on display at Renourish Taproom, a kombucha taproom that recently adopted a "staffless" business model, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.

At the most recent meetup Sober Squad had at Renourish, Holmgren said the group enjoyed the feeling of running the place themselves and having their own private space. “It was very modern,” she said.

Before the meetup, one person in the group said they wouldn’t be attending because they didn’t want to enter their name, phone number and credit card number at the door, Holmgren said. But the group’s feedback was positive overall, she said.

“I honestly really enjoyed the freedom of being on our own,” said Holmgren, but she also added that she missed Speroni’s presence in the taproom.

Holmgren also said she had to get clarification from Speroni on how entering the taproom would work for a group of people. Basically, group members can all enter together, but one person must put in their information and is considered responsible for the group.

Speroni said it’s been “really delightful” to see the space be utilized.

“I’ve really enjoyed the community taking part ownership and treating it with respect and treating it as a place of their own,” she said.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign hangs on the wall to inform customers at Renourish Taproom, a kombucha taproom that recently adopted a "staffless" business model, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 12, 2024.