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Robots Slingin’ Coffee: The View from the Street

A San Francisco start-up recently began utilizing robots to make its coffee. Is this the start of increasing usage of robots in food service, or just a novelty in a tech-oriented urban economy?

Cheaper Joe, and Maybe Part of a Trend…

Initial reports indicate that it’s both.

The start-up, Café X, now has several kiosks in San Francisco and one location in Hong Kong. A visible robotic arm can make coffee beverages for patrons who use a dedicated app or simply walk up to a kiosk.

TechCrunch points out that coffee is cheaper, at roughly $2.25 per cup versus the standard $4 to $5 for Americanos, lattes, and cappuccinos.

Cheaper is part of the point. Café X’s founder was inspired by realizing that most of barista brewing time for fancy coffees was spent moving cups from place to place — something the robots can do just as well. He received $5 million in funding.

More importantly, TechCrunch also observes that backing robots in food service is part of a venture capital trend in Silicon Valley. Margins in coffee shops and restaurants are historically very thin. Plus, many processes are repetitive and reasonably simple — robot territory.

Robots can lower employee costs, and thus increase margins.

Customers Miss the Baristas

Margins and cheaper prices are one thing, but how do Café X’s customers feel about the whole thing? Well, the enterprising MIT Review interviewed some customers and found, among other things, that many missed the social interaction with the baristas.

Now, to be fair, Café X hasn’t entirely replaced baristas. Plus, the survey sample size was tiny, at just 12 people.

Many felt the robot was interesting to see and were drawn to Café X to watch it. So in addition to benefiting margins, Café X is getting some bang in the marketing arena from the novelty.

Customers also like the convenience. The robot sets down a cup of joe faster than a human does. (And, apparently, it waves to the customer at the end.) Customer lines at kiosks are shorter than at other coffee bars.

Reports on the coffee itself, however, varied. Verbally, many people were, ah, lukewarm about the coffee’s taste and flavor. But in ratings, the quality of the coffee received a 7 or higher score on a 1 to 10 scale. Admittedly, many people don’t like to ding a rating, fearing that low scores might hurt the livelihood of a server. The jury is still out, though, on whether that reluctance holds with a robot.

Wave of the Future?

So will robots become part of coffee shops going forward? Will the lessons of Café X inflect the food and beverage industry? Many observers believe robots and the efficiencies they bring are inevitable in low-margin industries. The robotics market in food is forecast to reach more than $2 billion in 2022 worldwide. Café X isn’t even alone. There are bars where robots make martinis and salad bars whose fixings are put together by robot arms. Robots are coming. In fact, they’re here.