The baristas at Cafe X can make two drinks in under a minute and will get your order right every time.
They’re also not human.
The robotic coffee bar employs assembly line-style robots to build your coffee orders for you, making Cafe X a player in San Francisco’s automated eatery scene that’s also gaining traction across the country.
The trend has garnered pushback for impeding on jobs that could be filled by actual humans, yet Cafe X insists it focuses on “humans working alongside technology,” not replacing them, said Cafe X community manager Sam Blum. And though the baristas are robots, a living and breathing Cafe X specialist is always on-site at each store.
The venture-backed company was founded in 2015 by Henry Hu, who received funds from The Thiel Foundation, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s philanthropic effort, to see his endeavour through.
I visited the newest of the two Cafe X locations in San Francisco to get a glimpse of the coffee bar of the future.
Take a look to see what it’s like:
A Cafe X location looks like any other coffee shop…
Except that the barista is a little less talkative.
If you’ve ever avoided your usual coffee spot after realising your favourite barista wasn’t staffing the counter that day, you’ll probably find Cafe X appealing. The coffee station is completely automated, meaning your dirty chai latte with dairy-free milk will come out the exact same every time you visit.
Customers can use on-site kiosks to place their coffee orders.
The cafe can get busy, with both a morning rush and a lunch rush regularly coming in, but the upsides of an automated coffee service are its speed and efficiency.
The menu includes the usual items, like cappuccinos, lattes, and drip coffee, all priced at $US3. Those prices rise just a bit if you want single-origin beans to be used in your coffee order.
Cafe X partners with local bean roasters to give customers more options when building their drinks.
Blum said the single-origin beans, meaning beans that are harvested at only one location, are a fan favourite and having a more in-depth customised ordering experience allows customers to learn about coffee with every visit.
You also have two milk options: Organic Clover milk, and a dairy-free oat-derived alternative aptly called Oatly.
You’ll go through the same process if you order through the Cafe X app.
The system will ask for your phone number when you place an order. A pickup code will be sent to you in a text afterwards.
The robotic arm pivots and goes about its business to brew your coffee once an order is placed.
There’s a screen attached to the coffee station indicating where to plug in your code to pick up your coffee.
Once the code is accepted, a tiny hatch opens and voilà! There’s your coffee.
Don’t expect the robots to pump out any latte art. We’re not there yet.
Also: If you’re on the fence about the Oatly milk, I can confirm it’s pretty tasty. I chose it with my dirty chai latte, thanks to an on-site product specialist who gave me a rundown on how the milk alternative would taste before I ordered it.
Advising customers on any confusing parts of the menu or process is just one of the tasks on the docket for Cafe X specialists. Refilling beans in the robot’s coffee station is another.
Blum said that by automating certain parts of the service process, these specialists have more time to interact with customers. The goal is to help them do their jobs.
As far as how consumers are adjusting to the automation technology, Cafe X’s community manager Blum said more than 50% of customers are regulars, meaning people are warming up to the idea.
“First it was more of a spectacle, but now people understand,” Blum said.
There will be a third Cafe X location in San Francisco later this year, except this one will be on a street corner.
Tucked away in the structure will be the Robotic Coffeebar 2.0, the company’s upgraded system.
The new version of the automated coffee station will up its drink-making rate to three coffee orders in 40 seconds, have nitro cold brew on tap, and will be programmed with a “collaborative mode,” which will allow a specialist to start a coffee order before instructing the robot to finish it.
The new location will operate the same as the existing ones: Customers can order on the Cafe X app or on kiosks and a product specialist will always be present.
Going forward, Blum said the company will make Cafe X units available for office spaces and other commercial real estate in the near future.
The company is also looking to expand outside of the Bay Area to cities across the country.
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