Beth Epstein knew she needed to do something to make her café, Milk Street Café, hip. It’s in the middle of downtown Boston, the city’s “new center of technology,” she said, with a leading advertising company across the street and millennials everywhere. So starting in late July 2016, she installed a 3D latte-art printer called the Ripple Maker, which retails for $1,000 with service plans around $80 per month. “Customers love the idea,” she said, noting that she’s hoping people will start flocking to her space to get custom-printed images. They’re free of charge and make your latte 100 percent personalized.
It’s pretty easy for customers to use: Simply download the Ripple mobile app and pick a design or upload your own. The app will show you all the places nearby where you can print that image onto your latte: In Boston, Milk Street Café is the only one. Choose the café, get a number, and tell the barista when you arrive. The barista makes your cup of joe, then puts it into the machine, pushes a button, and 20 seconds later you get a gorgeous piece of artwork. Think everything from the Mona Lisa to Harry Potter to a company logo.
For the café, it’s a bit more complicated. Epstein said they had to install an entirely separate Wi-Fi network in order to sidestep security issues related to their credit card processing, which, along with all the accompanying issues, took some time. They’ve also had to train baristas on how to use the machine as well as customers coming in to use it. She said when it’s busy, they run demonstrations every 20 minutes to keep things moving. They’re working on custom illustrations and Boston-related sayings like “wicked smart” to customize the experience even more.
So are they making money or even breaking even? Not yet. “We’ve only been doing it for a few weeks, and we’ve been practicing a lot,” Epstein said. She’s hoping people will buy a pastry or something else to offset the cost, or come back with friends next time.
But that’s not the only issue.
In the coffee world, some subscribe to the free-pour latte school of art while others prefer “etching” (the first and second videos below, respectively).
The Ripple Maker is an extreme example of etching, as it uses coffee extract as its ink.”And coffee experts like Matt Banbury at Counter Culture, one of the country’s best coffee roasters, believe it affects the taste of your drink negatively. Etching, he said, “is purely aesthetic. Rarely, if ever, is the product a great flavor experience.” And as far as coffee ink goes, he said, “I can’t imagine liking the flavor of a coffee extract any more than I prefer vanilla extract to real vanilla bean.” In other words, Milk Street’s high-quality coffee from Intelligentsia might be compromised by the 3D printer’s ink.
But at the end of the day, even if the coffee doesn’t taste 100% amazing, it’s pretty dang cool to get your selfie printed on your latte or play a practical joke on a co-worker with foam. As Epstein said, “It’s not going to save anyone’s life, but it’s going to make someone’s day.”