For seven years I worked as a barista at Starbucks. I was freelancing for a few magazines out of my home, and I took the Starbucks job because I felt like I was slowly turning into a hermit. I really enjoyed getting out and talking to people in person from behind the bar for a few hours each day. Of course, the free coffee was a nice perk too, but the human connection aspect was what kept me around for so long.
I wasn’t the only one that used Starbucks as an opportunity to meet people. The retailer has a whole business built around the idea of creating a “third place,” somewhere that customers feel is a comfortable extension of their home, a real-life Cheers where everyone—or at least your regular barista—knows your name (if only because they write it on a cup every morning). During my stint at the coffee bar, I made friends with a number of customers who stopped by daily, looking for the same thing I was: a human connection.
But a new coffee shop opening today in San Francisco has the exact opposite in mind: Instead of getting your daily cup of joe from a friendly barista, you’ll get it from a robot.
Called Cafe X, the small shop inside San Francisco’s Metreon shopping center allows customers to place orders via smartphone or an iPad kiosk. The orders are prepared and delivered by a robo-barista. The place is not so much a coffee shop as a fully enclosed kiosk that looks like a hybrid between a café and a vending machine. Inside are two WMF espresso machines that can make one of seven different beverages, each offered with three different coffee options from local roasters, as well as organic milk and add-on features like syrups. Drinks are all served in eight-ounce cups and cost between $2 and $3. (Drinks are available in that particular size only for quality control. The roasters the company works with endorsed it as the best ratio of coffee to milk. Adding additional sizes in the future is a possibility.)
The privately backed company has raised $5 million in seed funding from investors including The Thiel Foundation, Social Capital, Khosla Ventures, Jason Calacanis, and Felicis Ventures. A Cafe X in Hong Kong (next to a Starbucks) that’s been in operation for a month currently serves more than 1,000 cups a week.
Cafe X’s model is similar to another San Francisco favorite, Eastsa. That company also allows mobile and in-house kiosk orders and delivers quinoa bowls to small pods inside the restaurant. The goal is to serve customers food as quickly as possible.
“If you’re looking for really good coffee, you often have to wait for a very long time, and if you’re in rush, you have to settle for very bad coffee,” says Cafe X founder and CEO Henry Hu. “We thought that by applying some automation and using mobile for placing orders, it would be possible to have really good coffee, but still really quickly.”
When your order is ready, Cafe X sends you a text message with a four-digit code that you enter at the robot’s kiosk. Once you do, the robotic arm (manufactured by Mitsubishi) grabs your cup of coffee from one of eight warming stations where it might be sitting, and gently rests it on a small shelf similar to what you might find in a vending machine. From there, you pick it up. The average drink preparation takes less than a minute.
The code adds a level of security that you don’t usually find in your average coffee purchase. Ordering digitally means you don’t have to worry about whether the barista heard your order correctly (or wrote it on someone else’s cup). Collecting your drink from a personal pod also ensures that someone doesn’t accidentally pick up your latte.
The robot will keep your drink warm for up to eight minutes, and after that, it gets dumped. You’ll get a notification letting you know you missed the pickup window, and the cafe will remake your drink once you arrive, free of charge. Over time, Hu says that the machine will also start to prioritize drinks based on geolocation. So a double espresso might be prepared for the person standing at the machine before the chai for the customer who’s around the corner. Eight warming stations might seem sparse for dense cities, but Hu says that in even in bustling Hong Kong, there has never been a problem.
Because I was a barista for so long, I believe I’ll still be able to make the perfect cappuccino when I’m in my 90s. It’s one of those things that gets better with practice, and when you’ve spent years and years making hundreds of specific drinks, you get pretty skilled at them. But not every barista has been slinging coffee for years.
Preparing coffee isn’t the most lucrative job, and plenty of baristas do it part-time. On Monday your latte might be made by someone who has been steaming milk for a decade, but on Tuesday, it might be made by someone who started last week. Variables like the roast on a particular batch of beans, the grind of the espresso machine, and even the barista’s mood factor into every order. Even with the same recipe, it’s tough to get a consistent flavor from a human-made cup of coffee. There are just too many moving parts.
With Cafe X, the majority of those variables are controlled. The robot takes your order, and the machines are calibrated to make it exactly the same each and every time. An on-site human specialist monitors quality and makes adjustments throughout the day to ensure that each cup is as good as it can be.
That on-site specialist is the only human you’ll interact with at Cafe X. That person will be on hand whenever the café is open and will be responsible for explaining how Cafe X works, testing products throughout the day to ensure quality, and offering coffee suggestions and tips to visitors. For instance, the person might be able to tell you more about a particular bean Cafe X is brewing, or offer you a selection of espresso shots so you can determine the difference between roasts. They’ll also offer you a lid.
The hope is that while the café might employ fewer humans than your average coffee shop, the one that it does employ will have more time to chat with customers and offer a more personalized experience.
Is Cafe X the first step in robots taking over that job I once enjoyed? Probably not. Hu acknowledges that customers who are hoping to spend time with friends or just interact with a stranger will still likely pick a traditional coffee shop. However, for times when they’re in a rush and need a cup of reliably good joe fast, Cafe X will be there.