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Can a $25,000 robot make better coffee than a barista?

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Automated coffee bars might be coming to an office, airport, or college campus near you

$25,000 robot coffee maker Courtesy Ammunition

Would you trust a robot to make your coffee? Entrepreneur Henry Hu and the Silicon Valley design firm Ammunition think you should give it a shot.

Pulling a perfect espresso is an art form that makes artisanal baristas and coffee snobs swoon. But when Hu bought his daily brew, he noticed that most baristas were spending more time pushing buttons and moving cups around than actually giving the coffee and customers the TLC they deserved. He noticed that orders would take longer than expected, and sometimes customers would get the wrong drink. Meanwhile, baristas didn’t have time to thoroughly answer questions about their specialty coffees to inquiring minds.

Courtesy Ammunition

“As coffee becomes popular, it’s become a production problem,” Hu says. “Waiting in line, wrong orders—the alternative is a vending machine, and that’s really bad quality.”

His solution? Automate as much of the process as possible through a coffee-slinging robot called Cafe X. The automated system he invented ensures precision, consistency, and quality, and kills margin of error. Hu believes his business has the potential to offer better coffee for a lower price and to redefine amenities in offices and publicly accessible space.

Hu received $100,000 from a Thiel Fellowship to pursue his idea and installed the Cafe X coffee bar prototype in the Metreon, a San Francisco movie theater and mall, a year ago. Since then, he’s been working with Ammunition—the Smithsonian National Design Award-winning firm behind Beats by Dre’s headphones and speakers, Square’s register, and Lyft’s Amp and Glowstache—to turn the prototype into a scalable product.

On February 27, a production-ready model—the second generation of Cafe X—debuts in One Bush Plaza, a public space in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district.

Cafe X 2.0 looks like a high-end coffee kiosk. But instead of a person standing inside pulling the espresso shots and frothing the organic milk (or organic oat milk), it’s a six-axis robotic arm that’s doing the heavy lifting. A person still mans the kiosk, but she or he stand outside and is there to tell people about the coffees Cafe X serves—it offers three single-origin roasts, a blend, matcha lattes, and cold brew—and answer questions about how the system works.

Customers place their orders through an app, or on an iPad stationed in front of the kiosk. (These kiosks are wireless and could be placed anywhere in a building, like on every floor, if management so desires.) After customers place an order, the automated system gets to work. Customers can see the robotic arm in action as it makes drinks through clear glass, almost like it’s a science museum exhibit.

Cafe X is a high-tech machine fitted with a $25,000 robotic arm, but Ammunition didn’t want the product to look like a 2001: Space Odyssey set piece. It needed to be warm and welcoming. Hu envisions Cafe X in offices, airports, shopping centers, and on university campuses. To work in all of those environments, and reflect the product it serves too, the design needed a certain level of polish.

Customers can order Cafe X coffee via an iPad at the kiosk or through a mobile app.
Courtesy Ammunition

“The coffee is high-quality and we wanted to make sure the outside reflects this,” Victoria Slaker, VP of industrial design at Ammunition, tells Curbed.

It’s finished with beautiful blonde and matte-black wood on the outside. Inside, it’s all sleek black and stainless steel. Two windows on the side open like DeLorean car doors for when the Cafe needs to be serviced or cleaned.

“Cafe X occupies a weird [design] space,” Slaker says. “It has to be credible at an architectural scale, but has to be manufactured in large numbers. . . It’s almost along the lines of building a car that happens to make coffee. You have to make a lot of them, and they have to have certain functionalities. It’s funny we ended up with these wing doors. We didn’t do it to be fancy—we’re not Elon Musk—but it totally made sense functionally.”

Courtesy Ammunition

But delivering a high-end experience isn’t just about looks alone; there were little touches that Ammunition and Cafe X programmed into the kiosk to make the coffee feel even more special, and find unexpected ways to make customers feel comfortable and excited to interact with a robot.

“We did a UX/UI exercise and asked, ‘What’s the balance between automation and coffee making?” Slaker says. “We’re not replacing a barista; you’re not having a conversation [with a robot] but it does some special actions. Like it waves, it does a sort of ‘ta-da’ [hand gesture], which is really sweet. We weren’t certain how it would feel but, people loved it.”

The wave looks pretty mechanical and the robot also swirls cappuccinos. It won’t deliver any fancy latte art, but Hu wants to add more fanciful flourishes in the future.

Once the drink is ready, customers punch a code the app provides them into one of three pick-up windows. The robot places it into the window, making sure everyone gets their right order—and without having to worry about whether or not the barista pronounced your name correctly or said it loud enough.

Courtesy Ammunition

Hu believes Cafe X will appeal to customers, coffee roasters, and building owners. On the customer front: Cafe X can serve up to three single-origin roasts, which gives customers more options. (According to Hu, most high-end cafes only serve one single-origin roast at a time since they require so much attention to brew and it’s difficult for baristas to keep track in a busy environment.) The cost of a drink is between $3 and $6, which Hu points out is “less than Starbucks.”

The appeal for roasters—Cafe X currently works with Intelligentsia, Ritual, and Equator—is that the robot can be programmed precisely to their specifications so that customers get a cup of coffee that supposedly tastes exactly as the roaster thinks it should.

Courtesy Ammunition

Hu says Cafe X’s easy installation and low operating costs will appeal to commercial building owners. Instead of building out a full cafe—which is expensive and takes a lot of time—they can just plug Cafe X in and go. It’s installed with a forklift and there are no extra plumbing hookups needed. Plus, it takes up just 40 square feet, which is fairly small.

Cafe X is leaning into a larger real estate trend: Existing office buildings are bringing in premium amenities to remain competitive.

“This has been really appealing to commercial real estate,” Hu says. “It’s basically seen as a premium amenity to the building.”

One Bush Street—an SOM-designed class-A office tower originally built in 1959 and renovated in 1990—is just one block away from the new Salesforce tower, which opened in January 2018 and has already leased two-thirds of its space. While San Francisco’s real estate market is famously hot, some experts predict the price for office space to fall in 2018 due to excess supply and lots of square footage in the sublease market. In order for older buildings to appeal to companies whose employees might be used to the amenity-rich environments of tech campuses or to those who are also considering new spaces with all the bells and whistles, they’ll need to offer perks, too.

Courtesy Ammunition

Tishman Speyer, the company who owns One Bush Street, worked closely with Cafe X on the product’s design to make sure it can be installed in its buildings seamlessly. Last year, Tishman announced a new strategy to offer more of a “work-life balance” to its tenants through a program called Zo, which launched at Rockefeller Center, in New York. It includes on-site amenities and services like wellness programs, childcare, food and beverage retail, catering, and more. In a news release, Tishman touted that Zo will “make it possible for tenant companies of all sizes to offer their employees the same services that have thus far been available only to large corporations.” Cafe X is part of this offering.

Hu’s also marketing Cafe X direct to companies. “A lot of companies have full-on cafes or coffee bars and Cafe X is a great way to add more of those,” he says. “If you’re a company who can’t justify a full-on coffee bar—which takes a lot of resources to run and set up—it costs a lot less to install a Cafe X.”

While Hu was not able to say how much a Cafe X costs for proprietary reasons, he did say that the robotic arm alone is $25,000. Some high-end espresso machines can cost nearly as much.

Hu has raised $5 million from venture capital and angel investors to help scale his business. Next up is securing a production facility to churn out more Cafe Xs. But will any of this matter if the robot can’t make coffee that tastes good? So far the reviews have been great: the robo barista’s first generation earned 4.5 stars on Yelp.

Check out Cafe X’s new outpost at One Bush Street in San Francisco to see for yourself. It opens February 27.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Ammunition designed the Cafe X app.

One Bush Plaza

1 Bush Street, , CA 94104