In the beginning, there was clapping. Round after round of applause, tolling like happy bells, when anyone walked through the door, and then again upon claiming food from the pick-up area. It wasn’t a lone, plucky staff member responsible for this enthusiasm, either; no fewer than 13 individuals were crammed behind that service counter, piling on the spirit.
Such joy was the last sensation I’d expected to feel upon entering a VIP preview event for Uptown’s new B-Dubs Express last Friday in Minneapolis. At first it was jarring, conditioned as we are by so many restaurants’ cooler-than-thou service vibe, but I sincerely hope that boisterous atmosphere wasn’t a one-day put-on.
Built on the familiar wings + beer + sports concept, this “Express” version of the classic Buffalo Wild Wings runs light on the latter, resembling more of an automated, self-service Wingstop than an Applebee’s. In the words of Todd Kronebusch, Buffalo Wild Wings’ VP of Off-Premise Dining & New Restaurant Formats, “While we have big televisions in here and we’ll have the NFL ticket, it’s not about sports viewership. It’s really about getting in and getting out.” Sorry, UFC fans.
The munchables themselves are exactly, 100 percent what one expects from the chain, which was headquartered in Golden Valley until Arby's acquired it in February. Pardon me as I decline to review the food itself. Kronebusch himself said, “We have… I wouldn’t say a scratch kitchen, by any means. At the end of the day, we do what we do and we have a good product.” This is a global entity whose entire company is built upon making their food as replicable as possible, from Columbus, Ohio, to Dubai.
What does set this B-Dubs Express apart from every other iteration on the planet is its 21-tap self-service beer wall. Hidden behind a glitzy chrome facade are kegs of micro and macro brews, plus two tap cocktails: a margarita! A boozy fruit punch called “Buffalo Zoo”!
How does it all work? Customers trade their state IDs to “responsible, alcohol service-trained staff” who then dole out wristbands and a magic card granting booze to its holder.
"The cards are regulated. You can only get so many ounces," Kronebusch explained. "If a guest comes in, they’re going to be able to get two servings on their first [card]. They ask to get [more]."
Honestly, messing with the tap wall was really fun! Unfamiliar with Fair State’s Roselle but want to try it? You’re in luck! A touch screen flips through in-depth info about each brew, while a whole rack of actual, fluted glassware rests at knee height, awaiting your selection. Fancy a classic Blue Moon? They’ve got you, too.
Heathen that I am, I’d made a promise to my editor that, if possible, I’d make a beer suicide. Thanks to B-Dubs measuring “servings” in ounces rather than number of taps pulled, there was no one to humiliate me while following through on this lark -- this is why we can't have nice things.
While surveying the scene over wings and Weihenstephaner, my inner service industry veteran I try to keep buried poked through B-Dubs’ earnestness, arriving just in time to blast holes in the shiny, fragile newness all around me.
I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone who made this particular establishment -- a stone’s throw from Cowboy Slim’s, the Pourhouse, Libertine, etc. -- had ever met a real, live drunk person before? Or a toddler? (Hint: They’re the same thing.) Or if they’ve ever seen how people move in crowded areas?
“This could be a disaster,” I thought, laughing.
While in a controlled setting (like this midday preview event, where everyone wore their big-boy pants), a self-serve tap wall works exactly as designed. But this is the heart of Uptown, and people, everywhere, are made of chaos.
Take, for instance, the fact that we’re basically given hundreds of real glasses into which we pour our own libations. Until 10 p.m., drinks are allowed all the way outside to the patio, where they will surely stay in the wristbanded hand of someone sober enough to consume their contents, and not be chucked onto Lake Street.
Bartenders are more than beer pourers and ABV-spouters; they’re also monitoring your safety, sometimes protecting you from yourself as you can’t see that drink’s impact on you in real-time. I’m probably a humorless shrew and an alarmist for suggesting this, but sometimes we still need adults in our lives.
All Buffalo Wild Wings Express locations also boast a self-serve wall of sauces and dry rubs, letting customers depart from their tried-and-true favorites when they’re feeling adventurous. Unlike the taps wall -- conveniently located in the worst spot possible, at the five-foot-wide intersection of the food pick-up area and those finding a seat in the mini-dining room -- the sauce buffet is down a long hall by the bathrooms, around a blind corner from all 13 counter staff, who have zero chance to nip that saucy foodfight in its bud.
During my chat with Kronebusch, I gestured at the sauce wall and glassware before asking how good their janitorial staff is.
“When you put the experience in the consumer’s hand, there is some risk that comes with it. We’re hoping that people will enjoy it and see it as a value. There’s going to be the occasion where things will happen, and we’ll have to…” he said, trailing off.
So long as absolutely everything works as intended, this B-Dubs Express could be great! But it may yet prove a perfect litmus test for Uptown’s humanity.
Are we responsible enough to pour our own beer into glassware, without shanking each other or plying our underage brethren with our dregs? Can we handle that many sauce choices at our fingertips without food fights erupting because someone’s kicks got scuffed in a tiny restaurant after the witching hour?
Please prove my catastrophizing-ass wrong, and reap all the joy possible from this gleaming house of applause while it lasts.
1221 W. Lake St., Minneapolis