Coffee shops are quick service restaurants (QSRs) — even when the service isn’t that quick. So if there’s a way to make it quicker, good business sense says it’s worth doing, right?
Try telling that to a coffee hipster. Slow food, rather than fast food, is the artisanal way, and coffee diehards believe a fresh-ground pour-over is the freshest (and therefore the only) way to go. However, as The Wall Street Journal notes, it can be nigh impossible to serve them to a long line of customers; in some cases the issue is purely about business efficiency, hipster or not.
The slow-drip method was invented in the early 1900s and gained popularity in 2008 as an alternative to commoditized coffee. This special, individualized cup became the go-to as consumers gravitated toward higher-quality food products and began to espouse the ideology of natural food and drinks, done right — i.e., the good old-fashioned slow way — even if their lifestyle and wallets didn’t necessarily support it.
But not every customer has five to seven minutes of spare time to wait for a coffee. That’s a long time — even for a complicated latté — and is exactly why Starbucks had to introduce its mobile order-ahead app or risk customers churning out to other businesses where the lines were shorter.
Perhaps it’s a sign that the hipster fad is on its way out as people begin to acknowledge that they value their time and convenience more than they value the artisanal quality of their caffeine.
The thing is, manual pour-overs aren’t actually better than automatic ones. More romantic, sure, but less consistent — different baristas will produce different results, and even the same barista may get distracted and mess it up. A precision-built robot makes the same cup every time.
In one hour, a live barista can produce about nine pour-overs. It’s a contemplative process that may be good for the spirit but is very bad for productivity, at least when compared to the 100 cups of coffee that a large-batch coffee machine can churn out in the same amount of time.
These are just a couple of reasons that shrewd coffee shop owners may start looking to automation to sustain the bottom line, even if they would prefer to take the romantic approach.
Machines can do anything, or almost anything, and it’s only a matter of time before most manual processes have to face the threat of automation. It’s already happening in other QSR settings.
Flippy the burger bot is grilling patties at CaliBurger restaurant, robots are assembling pizzas at a Mountain View, California pizza delivery service, and Café X in San Francisco serves up espresso, Americanos and lattés made by a robotic arm.
Even home-brewed craft beers are being concocted not by human hands, but by automated ones. (Kind of makes one wonder what’s the point of home-brewing in the first place…)
That’s why Matt Perger, former barista and one-time winner of the World Brewers Cup, says baristas should focus on the parts of their job that a machine can’t do, like educating customers about coffee, and let the robots grind through the 25-person line.
However, there will always be those customers who are not just looking for a caffeine fix, but for an experience. To them, hand-poured coffee is about moments of peace in life’s chaos. Fast and frictionless are great in payments, but in the world of coffee, sometimes it’s best to slow down.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Intelligentsia in Pasadena may have found the perfect solution: automate the process for those who are in a hurry, and offer the slow and peaceful pace upon request for those who have the inclination to wait.