When the Cafe X robot coffee shop opened last year, it seemed like something one might see at a Disneyland rather than down on the corner next to the local bodega.
That’s because instead of getting a cup of joe from a tattooed young barista wearing a green apron, customers input their orders using a tablet and then proceeded to watch as a Mitsubishi robot arm prepared the coffee. Throw in the throngs of people crowded around the glass cage to snap pics to put on their socials, and the whole thing definitely had a Tomorrowland-meets-Boston Dynamics vibe to it all.
But when I visited the second Cafe X location last month, I started to see how the automated robo-barista could go from tourist attraction to everyday experience. Not only had the crowds died down a bit as tech-drenched denizens of San Francisco have started to accept the idea of robot crafted coffee, but the coffee was decent, the service fast and the experience enjoyable. In short, when I squinted just right, I could see a future with Cafe X coffee shops installed pretty much anywhere.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what the folks behind the Cafe X are thinking as well. That’s because this week the company will debut its second generation coffee robotic coffee bar, a robotic ‘coffee shop in a box’ that can be installed in an office building, at the airport, or in the student union hall.
The new robot coffee shop -- the company’s third -is in San Francisco’s financial district at One Third Plaza. The new shop will feature what the company is calling “Robotic Coffee Bar 2.0”, a smaller footprint, lower cost installation that takes up a total of 40 square feet and, as CEO Henry Hu told Curbed, can be installed with a forklift.
“The new design makes it possible for Cafe X to be in almost any location,” said Hu in the company’s announcement about the new platform.
In a way, Hu and his team look like they are taking what was a proof of concept and lab experiment and growing it into a company with a vision for the future. To do that, the company teamed up with industrial design firm named Ammunition to not only to create something that is not only less amusement park attraction and more coffee shop, but also a product that can be replicated at practically any location.
“Cafe X occupies a weird [design] space,” said Victoria Slaker, the vice president of industrial design at Ammunition. “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.”
Long-term, it remains to be seen how much of the coffee shop becomes automated. There’s something of a natural tension between automation and what Howard Schulz designated as the “third place” in life. I also think the best baristas -- like the best chefs -- can’t be easily replaced with a robot. While Cafe X is pointing to new artisanal-ish type of features such as the ability to serve single-origin roasts and serve up nitro coffee on tap, these extras are not gonna replace a full-fledged third wave coffee experience like that of Blue Bottle anytime soon.
But hey, not every coffee I buy is Blue Bottle quality. Like most, sometimes I just want a decent espresso or latte, and I want it now. And, if Hu and his team have it their way, there will be a lot more robotic baristas around in the future to help me scratch that quick-coffee itch in the future.
You can see the Cafe-X Coffee Bar 2.0 in action in the video below: