Dominik Galander welcomes his customers virtually – and serves them real drinks

by Jan-Peter Wulf

Dominik Galander: “We have managed to recreate 95 percent of our physical bar”

The Galander Online Bar welcomes customers virtually – and serves them real drinks

A new bar opened in Berlin in January 2021, and already more than one thousand customers have paid this establishment a visit, ordering drinks, entering into discussions with one another, dancing, or gathering around the stage to listen to live music. “So what,” you might think, if you didn't know that there was a lockdown in place and no bars are open anywhere. Yet the ‘Galander Online Bar’ is open – and while it might look like a throwback computer game from the 1980s, it is actually much more than that: it is an exciting new business model. Inventor and operator Dominik Galander spoke with us about how it works.

 

Dominik, what gave you the idea to open up a virtual bar?

Like many bar operators, when the lockdown was reimposed in November I briefly went into shock, before starting to offer cocktails-in-a-bottle to go. However, we quickly realised that simply sitting at home with these drinks is not all that great. The essential interpersonal element just isn’t there. But what could we do to satisfy this need? Did the answer lie with Zoom or Teams? To us, the limitations of these solutions were too glaring – either one person speaks, and everyone else is forced to listen, or multiple people speak at once, and no one can understand anything at all. And then, by pure chance, we found the solution. Johannes Warth, a ‘friend of the bar’ who is also a public speaker, was on the lookout for software that would allow him to create a digital stage, and he invited me to take a look at what he had found: Gather, a software tool that is primarily used for digital trade shows and conferences. 

 

 

 

A two-dimensional world like that of an old computer game that you can navigate with an avatar you have designed yourself. And straight away, you were convinced: wouldn’t that also work as a bar?

Not at all – my first thought was that there was no way this could work. However, his son was nice enough to upload a photo of my bar as a background, and suddenly I began to see the potential of the concept. I decided to invest a few hours of my time, and used pictures of the ‘Galander Kreuzberg’ to create the virtual bar. 

And this bar is very detailed. You can see the bars in your establishment with all the bottles behind them, the lounge area, the entrance area in front of the door – even the toilets are there. What happened next?

In early January we invited 80 people to come and put our creation to the test. We sent each of them a drinks package, and what can I say – we received excellent feedback from all 80 of them! It was a wonderful evening; by the end people wanted to dance, and I remember thinking: What do they mean, dance? How exactly do they expect to do that? So we quickly opened up a virtual dance floor and the people actually danced right there in front of their computers. They had really missed the social contact, as many of them wrote in a brief survey we conducted afterwards.

 

So then you opened up your bar online for real. I have already been there as a patron myself, and I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical at first. But it really was great. I had some nice conversations, enjoyed an excellent Vieux Carré, and even ran into some acquaintances of mine. The immersive experience was a complete success.

Our goal was that within a quarter of an hour, our patrons should forget that they were sitting in front of their computers, and we succeeded. We have managed to recreate 95 percent of our physical bar. The only thing we haven’t managed to do yet is get real beverages to flow from the computer (laughs).

 

But you've come close: people can also order drinks from you.

That’s right. There are a few ways they can do this: they can use our website to place an order during the week, in which case we make sure to deliver their drinks on time and give them a weekend ticket for the bar. Or they can simply order a drink at the bar one evening on the spur of the moment, in which case our bartender prepares the drink live and one of our waiters drives over to deliver the drink in person. We offer these deliveries within a five-kilometre radius, and for bigger orders we're willing to drive a few kilometres further. People can also come and pick up their drinks in person. And the final possibility is to purchase an admission ticket for five euros and drink something from your own refrigerator.

 

How popular would you say these various ordering options are with your patrons, and who are the people who are visiting the ‘Galander Online Bar’?

70 percent of them place their orders during the week, 20 percent on the evening itself, and 10 percent drink their own beverages. At the beginning, following the test event, we were primarily welcoming our regular customers and their friends. Then our bar was featured in TV and newspaper reports, and we have been welcoming people from all over the place ever since. We’ve even had people visit us from Australia, as well as a lot of people who used to be regulars before they moved away from Berlin. There have also been a lot of new faces. The best thing about a virtual bar is that it is very easy to come into contact with other people ...

... that’s when I noticed that as soon as you approach another avatar, or sit down with a group at a table or at the bar, each person’s camera switches on ...

... and people can talk with one another through this two-way video chat. We’ve had quite a few humorous experiences: one person who joined us from France began talking with a customer from Wilmersdorf, and they discovered that not only had they gone to the same school in Berlin, but they even both liked the same girl – and one of them had actually had a relationship with her (laughs). By the way: our female patrons have told us that they are able to sit right up at the bar in the ‘Galander Online Bar’ without having to worry about being chatted up. In fact, we maintain a guest list, and we are able to identify every avatar.

 

How many patrons have you welcomed to date? And what has been your best evening so far?

We now have well over a thousand patrons. On my 40th birthday, we welcomed 200 guests – talk about a busy evening! I generally hate celebrating my birthday, and usually I take a little trip and switch off my mobile, but this time it was really cool to be able to see so many of my friends again from my home, including a lot of people whom I hadn't seen for years.

 

Speaking of home: your employees are not working from their sofas, but rather they are right there in the bar when the ‘Galander Online Bar’ opens for business on Friday and Saturday.

That’s right – they are on location in shirts, bow ties and waistcoats. It creates an entirely different feeling. We have set up a large flat screen in front of the bar, so they can see who is sitting there online. This allows them to properly welcome new patrons, and whenever someone orders a drink, they turn around to grab the bottles behind them. They really are working at the bar! We have another member of staff who goes from customer to customer in avatar-form, asking people if everything is okay, or letting people know when live music is about to start. This allows us to offer a stage to artists – who are also having a hard time of it right now – and when they pass the (virtual) hat, patrons can use PayPal to chip in. We’ve even played host to vernissages.

 

Is the Galander company actually making any money with its online bar?

Our weekend business selling cocktails in a bottle has been enough to get the staff of the ‘Galander Kreuzberg’ back out of short-time work on Fridays and Saturdays. Company events and birthdays are more promising financially speaking, as sometimes as many as 120 cocktails will be ordered at once. I’m also working to create these digital worlds for other companies as well.

 

Who for? Are you doing this for any restaurants?

To date I've been doing this for companies in other sectors. A lot of managers have recognised that by setting up a virtual open plan office, they can recreate some of the communication channels that Zoom calls cannot.

 

How exactly does that work?

One customer has now introduced a rule that their employees have to be present virtually three times a week: people log into their online office in the morning, and whenever they have a question for a colleague, they can simply use their avatar to ‘walk’ on over and ask them. They can even get together in a conference room for a meeting. There’s also a cafeteria. I really am surprised that no other bar has come up with this idea.

 

Would you be willing to help other bars launch their own online establishments?

Certainly. We’re all in this together.

 

Will the ‘Galander Online Bar’ remain open once the ‘real’ bar is allowed to open its doors again?

Yes, it will. For one thing, it allows us to welcome patrons who do not live in Berlin. We still need to figure out how we can do this while the physical bar is also open, with the screen at the bar, but I’m sure we’ll think of something. Our next move is to bring the ‘Galander Haifischbar’ online. Once we've done that, our patrons will be able to go back and forth along Hagelberger Straße from one bar to the other.

 

Do you mean that you will even be recreating the route between the bars online? How are you going to do this?

I’m not ready to reveal that yet (laughs).

 

Well, we're certainly looking forward to finding out. Dominik, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

 

The ‘Galander Online Bar’ is currently open every Friday and Saturday. It is recommended that patrons visit using their laptop or desktop computers, as the mobile experience is still somewhat restricted. More information is available at www.galander.berlin/onlinebar