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At Cafe X, Robot Baristas are Grinding Down the Competition

April 29, 2019

Who makes the best coffee in the world these days? One place to find out is the World Barista Championships, where in Boston this April, South Korea’s Jooyeon Jeon of Momos Coffee triumphed over her lightly bearded male rivals in the final.

In the next five years, however, she might find herself defending her title in less of a hipsterish battle of the sexes, and more of a sci-fi struggle for silverware with robotic baristas from food tech startups like Cafe X Technologies, a runner-up in the recent AgriFood Tech Innovation awards.

With this in mind, I meet Cafe X chief operating officer Cynthia Yeung for coffee on a rainy spring afternoon in downtown San Francisco, where she offered AFN a robo-cafe crawl around the company’s first three outlets.

Hot and cold caffeinated beverages at these joints are made by Michael, Robin and Francisco the Second. No mention of what became of Francisco the First. All three are programmed to serve a widening menu of drinks; the fastest of them serves up to three drinks a minute, often with a wave and a dance thrown in for the sake of being friendly. Needless to say, they never stop for breaks.

Before we order, Yeung reveals how a fourth robo-barista is expected in San Francisco International Airport by September, if not before. That will be a new version, she says, designed to “remove points of friction” from the user journey.

“There are just so many bottlenecks,” Yeung says, berating fully-manual staffed cafes like Starbucks. Places like these, she warns, offer endless scenarios where customer service takes a hit, while human baristas get worn down by the daily grind beside steamy coffee machines. “Maybe the barista is tired,” she says rapidly: “Or has had a bad day, or it’s their first day on the job — or the line is long — and there are three Roberts in the line, and all the Roberts order Lattes, but slightly different, and they get the cups mixed up … or the barista can’t spell or pronounce your name when it’s ready…”

These are all little things, she says, but they add up alongside management headaches like sick leaves or manual labor shortages. Instead, the human baristas at Cafe X are liberated from such toil and confusion, and become more like classy sommeliers — but for coffee and tea rather than fine wine, advising customers on the taste profiles of tea leaf blends, or guiding them through coffee bean producers in Colombia or Ethiopia.

Make that a Matcha Latte

Our human coffee seller that day is Fumbah Tulay, who breezily consults us on our drinks, mulling over whether we should accompany it with a “mango passion mochi donut” or an “ube custard cake.” All are locally sourced from a third culture bakery nearby.

“Yeah,” Tulay gestures over to his automated colleague making another customer a drink. “He doesn’t talk much. At first it was pretty jarring, but you get used to it. What he does is pretty awesome.”

Awesome, eh? I decide to slip into the guise of a time-strapped, caffeine starved, irritable San Francisco commuter —putting this robotic barista through its paces with an order that might make a novice coffee maker spill over with anxiety. One latte; make that a Matcha Latte; and I’ll have that with Oat Milk .… to go!

There’s no chance of barking this order out in an exasperatingly brash fashion, as it is all scheduled and paid for via the Cafe X app, or a touchscreen to the side. All consumer activity on the app is stored and analysed for behavior patterns like repeat orders or time of purchase. This opens out various data possibilities, Yeung says, for fresh recommendations and deals based off previous caffeine habits. Watched on by Yeung and Tulay, our robo-barista — Michael, I think — rustled my order up behind a sleek, almost Tesla-esque glass pane. And it did it seamlessly in seconds with its customary wave and dance, delivering it through a slot when I came to collect it. The latte turned out to be rather good, if a little sweet.

“Our CEO has a bit of a sweet tooth,” Yeung explains.

As if on cue, Cafe X CEO Henry Hu stops by and agrees to walk with us to another of his team’s kiosks, just over on One Bush Street. “Our concept is using automation and robotics to do the heavily repetitive and boring tasks, and then have our staff to do the more human things like customer service and coffee education,” he says cheerily. Hu clarifies that a “robot able to move cups around is not what makes this exciting; it’s not what’s interesting.”

In fact, he explains, it is more about the capacity to constantly update the interaction between the coffee machine and the robotic arm. That is how it can produce ever more sophisticated and interesting caffeinated beverages. Otherwise, as with vending machines that are hard to update after installation, they risk getting rendered obsolete. Sudden changes in ingredients or the emergence new fads like nitrogenated iced tea can leave such machines looking old school if they can’t learn new tricks. For this, his team have been developing their robotics and software in partnership with the German coffee machine maker WMF.

Cooperation with coffee machine manufacturers had proved an early stumbling block, the Cafe X team say, as most manufacturers were wary of granting access to their machine’s software. Without it, the robot would have to be pressing on touch screens, and scrolling down the menu in a way that makes robotic baristas far less quick and useful.

Bitter Competition

So the software interaction side between robot barista and the coffee machine is where the real race is on — and Hu has a healthy froth of competition brimming in the Bay Area and beyond. In New York, there’s Truebird building AI-driven micro-cafes that could one day line the walls of hospitals, airports and offices. It is backed by Alleycorp. In Austin, Texas, there’s also Briggo. Then there are a spate of similar-minded companies that have also sprung up in China, Korea and elsewhere in Asia, like Ratio.

And it’s clearly not just all about caffeine in the automation rush for the food and drink service industry. Sunnyvale-based Blendid has its Chef B, which will mix you a smoothie for $6. If you’d rather a healthier option like a salad, Chowbotics has Sally, its robotic salad-tosser. Prefer a bit of junk food like pizza or burgers? Check out Zume Pizza or Creator’s Rube Goldberg machine, which tirelessly flips patties without breaking a sweat. Will these soon one day serve you a coffee or tea with that?

Funding and Distri-brew-tion

Aiming to grind down this competition, Cafe X is powering ahead with research and development. For this quest — and to help pay the bills for San Francisco’s exorbitant retail rental fees — Cafe X’s 30 plus team is funded by around $14 million worth of investments. These include investors like Craft Ventures, Jason Calacanis, Felicis Ventures, and The Thiel Foundation.

Profits, as with all too many startups, do not seem imminent, especially with the company’s long-term plans to build their own production plant in the next few years in California. Yet set aside the R&D, distribution and manufacturing costs, and each outlet can start making a profit within a few months, the team say.

In general, the company seems eager to bring their cafes into the mass market — but the team is still vague about what that will mean at this stage. Does it mean a US focus? Or an international move into global financial centers like London, Tokyo or Shanghai with flagship stores? The team refuses to spill the beans. Yeung hinted in passing that the team is looking out for areas of labour shortage, ageing populations and acceptance of robotic interactions, highlighting Japan as an example.

Hu, meanwhile, prefers to focus like a perfectionist on getting his robotic designs as sleek as possible, almost like an Elon Musk of coffee making. Still, Hu shies away from any such comparisons with someone he so admires. He jokes, somewhat hopefully, about how his Cafe X robots could someday find themselves serving hot drinks on board a Space X colony on Mars. But Yeung quickly pulls him back down to earth. She quietly urges Hu to focus on planetary expansion first, before trying anything too “intergalactic.”

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