Imagine if every time you walked into Starbucks, the barista already knew you wanted a dry skim vanilla latte with an extra shot of vanilla. Starbucks would be a smart coffee retailer in the same way Nest is a smart thermostat, so that it not only read your tired, uncaffeinated mind, but also had a customized, steaming cup waiting for you by the time you park your car and arrive at the barista counter.
And you could do this in the middle of the night, while cramming for a client deadline.
This isn’t in the works at Starbucks, as far as we know, but rather Austin-based upstart Briggo, which has created an autonomous automated version of a high-end coffee retailer. While the concept of a coffee vending machine brings to mind those ancient aluminum hospital waiting room boxes that spew out a questionable watery brown substance, Briggo Coffee Haus aims to replicate the quality, skill, and artistry produced by the finest baristas.
By employing sophisticated robotics, mobile technology, coffee sourcing from a former Starbucks vet, and UX design by fuseproject’s Yves Behar, the Briggo claims to offer a coffee consuming experience akin to Starbucks, without ever having to wait on a tedious, snaking line. "We basically have a champion barista at your fingertips 24-7," says Briggo CEO Kevin Nater, a former Dell executive.
Throughout history, vending machines have managed to serve everything from the ambitious (coin-operated full-service restaurants) to the grim (in the 1950s, airlines offered self-service life insurance policies before boarding). Coffee made its initial debut on the vending machine circuit in the 1940s, and since has experienced the full spectrum of coffee treatments. The worst might be the machines populating many office cafeterias, serving "instant cappuccinos" cocktails made with instant coffee, non-dairy creamers, and dried corn syrup. Meanwhile, in Italy the self-service espresso machines lining train stations are almost as good as the ones being flipped by nearby coffee bars.
The concept for the artisanal coffee kiosk first came to electrical engineer Charles Studor, who spent 20 years at a Motorola, in 2008. With 150 million cups of coffee consumed outside the home every day in the U.S. alone, he recognized a financial opportunity in populating coffee deserts—one that could be bolstered by mobile technology. "Coffee has improved everywhere: at home, in coffeehouses, at restaurants. But where it hasn't improved are in hospitals, universities, airports—high-traffic places that need service 24 hours a day," says fuseproject’s Behar, imagining a doctor who gets out of surgery and wants a personalized, gourmet cup of joe waiting for them. "Briggo can bring quality to places where you could never have imagined."
With the Briggo, coffee drinkers can optimize their perfectly calibrated cup of coffee (or cappuccino, chai latte, hot chocolate, cold brew, steamer, etc.) and replicate it again and again, no matter which machine they purchase from. Through its app, customers locate the Briggo closest to them, draw up past orders, and tweak them based on their previous cup—say, more milk, less syrup, or another shot of espresso (eventually, it will be able to customize down to foam thickness and coffee temperature). "What Briggo does is ensure the exact specs and your preferences are the same in any experience, any location, which is not the case when different baristas make each cup differently," says Behar. Once a customer submits their order, they are informed the wait time, and then receive a text when it’s ready to be picked up. Upon arrival, they punch a code into the kiosk’s touchscreen, and the customized drink is served to order.
To ensure it’s not just a fancy contraption spitting out mediocre drinks, Briggo claims to have put equal sweat into making sure its robotics replicate the exact techniques of the best coffee professionals. "We invented our frothing wand and it stretches milk just like a barista," says Scott McMartin, Briggo’s coffee sourcing advisor who spent 20 years at Starbucks. "The way we’ve built the robot is it can reject the drink if there’s a problem with milk temperature. Our technology is about—how do you eliminate some of the human variables of the barista?" While the company roasts its own coffee beans, its flavors (and prices) are more comparable to Starbucks, than to a third wave roaster like Stumptown or Intelligentsia. "It's not going to be as good as Blue Bottle," admits Behar. "But that's like comparing a five hour eating experience at a Thomas Keller restaurant with a pretty good restaurant in a high traffic area."
For his part, Blue Bottle founder James Freeman attributes coffee tech like this to a masculine impulse to build cooler gadgets. "This whole manual thing people see as a problem. That it takes a person to do it," says Freeman. "People don’t care that no one has figured out how to automate the cooking of a perfect steak."
Briggos is still far from challenging the corner café. The company’s first machine was recently piloted at the University of Texas’s Austin student center, with plans to roll it out in Austin next year, then nationally by 2016. While the startup has raised $11 million in funding, it says it’s not looking to compete with Starbucks, but compliment it. But it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to picture a near future where, if confronted with a Starbucks and a Briggo, a caffeine junkie will ultimately opt for efficiency—assuming taste is up to par. "It's disruptive," says Behar, "just like Uber is disruptive to taxis."