When most people are attempting to catch a flight out of an international airport and want to grab a cup of coffee, their main focus is on speed — they don’t want their caffeine break to cause them to miss their flight. In fact, they don’t take all that much time to observe, or contemplate, the coffee making process in front of them.
In this regard, Henry Hu, Cafe X’s founder and CEO, is not like most people. When he was in Singapore’s Changi airport a few years ago, he found himself watching the motions of the various baristas at the regional coffee shop where he was stopped, and noticed they were working quickly in a tight space performing a series of very mechanized movements. As he was waiting in line — and beginning to become concerned that he was going to miss his flight — it occurred to him that there might be a better, more efficient way to do this.
Specifically, it occurred to Hu that perhaps it would be better to have actual machines doing the mechanical parts of coffee brewing, so that the human staff could be freed up to do more human activities.
Thus, the idea for Cafe X was born — a coffee shop with a robot barista. The problem? There was, at the time, no such thing as a robot barista. So Hu, with the help of two friends and a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship, built one out of sheet metal. Two years later, in 2017, with the coffee robot perfected for launch, they opened their first location — a San Francisco coffee kiosk. In early 2018, after two rounds of funding worth about $5.1 million, Cafe X opened it first fully automated coffee shop in San Francisco, as well as a second coffee kiosk.
Now the firm is raising funds again — according to recent reports they are a little more than 66 percent done with a $12 million round — and looking to expand.
Coffee made by robots, Cafe X’s COO, Cynthia Yeung, explained to PYMNTS, isn’t just a novel way to quickly caffeinate the masses — it’s also a better way to get a cup of coffee.
How It Works
The Cafe X experience, according to Yeung, is about looking at a customer’s typical coffee-buying experience, and then using robotics and automation to relieve those pain points.
The first area of friction most consumers run into is at the line itself.
“There is one cashier or maybe two, and inevitably there is one guy at the front of the line who gets there, and even though he’s been in line the whole time, and can’t decide if he wants a latte or a cappuccino,” she said.
Everyone else in the line knows what they want, but “that guy” is somehow always there holding everyone up — a problem that Cafe X beats with kiosks and mobile order-ahead. The best case, Yeung noted, is that the consumer can walk straight in an pick-up an order; the worst case is that the indecisive orderer is there, but at Cafe X, he’s at one kiosk out of many, preventing both lines and rage.
The two modes work, she said, because even in its early days the cafe has multiple types of customers. Regulars, people from the neighborhood and people who step off the subway and stop in on their way to work every morning tend to fancy the app. First time visitors, tourists and other less frequent customers like having a line busting option of their own.
When it is time to pick up their coffees, customers enter their code and the robot barista will pick up their order and hand it to them.
Which solves another major pain point in the coffee process — picking up your coffee and accidentally taking the wrong cup because you and another customer have the same name. It happens, Yeung notes, because of the various ways human error can multiply in busy, loud and crowded environments. The barista might mishear a customer name, write it sloppily, the ink could smear or the coffee prep team could do everything right, but there are 29 people named Mary in the store and a few of them get their coffees mixed up.
The machine, Yeung noted, doesn’t have any of those issues. It recognizes the customer by the code they enter and the name taken from a payment card — and it always gives the customers whatever drinks they actually ordered.
“Coffee is an important ritual for people, and it sets the tone for the rest of their day,” she said.“It’s nice when everything goes just right.”
In some cases, the robot can make it better than just right.
The Wonder Of Made-By-Robots
Starbucks, for all its many fans, has developed a not-so-nice nickname among coffee aficionados: Starburnt.
The nickname refers to the fact that Starbucks roasts its coffee too dark so consistently that, to some, it tastes a bit burnt According to Yeung, there is a very good reason for that: Very dark roasts are more forgiving of human error.
“Even the best baristas are human and have off days, and everyone gets tired,” she said.“People get less precise as they work, and in mass-market cafes, they aren’t going to be able to measure to the gram for every cup. … Because baristas are going to be inconsistent [mass-market cafes] use very dark roasts, which mask a lot of inconsistency — the very dark roast means the flavor will always be the same.”
People who frequent high-end coffee shops will note that coffee comes in a much greater variety of flavors and brews than what is standard at mass market cafes, but, that is an expensive and time consuming cup of coffee that the barista will absolutely measure down to the gram — usually with custom made measuring spoons. Though it may be delicious, Yeung noted it’s not really compatible with a before-work purchase.
The Cafe X robot, shines in this instance — its measurements are always going to be precise, no matter how many hours it has been working. It doesn’t have bad days and it can accommodate lighter roasts and more variety in orders because it will always make an order the exact same way.
“We can use higher quality ingredients, and high-end roasters, because the machine is always going to properly measure and mix them — it literally can’t do anything else,” she said.
Moreover, because they let the machine do what it does best — mix, measure, categorize and distribute — Cafe X can better utilize its human staff. All of its machines are manned, so there is always an employee to talk to. Consumers often have questions they want to ask about the coffee or about the machine itself, and it’s important to have a human to interact with. Because the mechanical tasks are handled by a kiosk and a robotic barista, the human employee is freed up for better and different interactions with customers.
It is an interaction that Cafe X is hoping to make more available to consumers through expansion.
The firm is in fundraising mode, with the goal of 100 percent expansion, as well as manufacturing more coffee-making machines. Cafe X has seen a lot of interest in its product so far, but the gating factor for is production. With the ongoing funding round they are looking to break through that gate.