Robot Baristas Serve Up the Future of Coffee at Cafe X

Robot Baristas Serve Up the Future of Coffee at Cafe X

Automation is eliminating jobs for factory workers and Uber drivers—will your morning fix soon come from a precision caffeine machine? WSJ's Geoffrey A. Fowler tastes the new robot lattes at San Francisco's Cafe X.

By GEOFFREY A. FOWLER  Jan. 30, 2017 8:00 a.m. ET

At San Francisco’s new Cafe X, the barista doesn’t make small talk or sport a hip mustache. But its industrial-strength claw sure knows espresso drinks.

Cafe X is a new breed of coffee shop pushing the boundaries of automation both to make food and to serve it.

It is mesmerizing efficiency. Tap your desired beverage, flavor and artisanal bean on a phone or kiosk screen. That beams the order to the robot, which uses a Mitsubishi six-axis arm to grab a cup, pump in some syrup and pop it in front of one of its coffee-brewing cores, which grind beans and foam milk into an espresso confection. In 22 to 55 seconds, depending on the order, the arm lowers the cup on a hydraulic pedestal, revealing your coffee like the Batmobile heading out of the Batcave.

An 8-ounce robot latte runs $2.95, 40 cents less than a short latte at the Starbucks around the corner.

How is it taste? I’d give the first U.S. Cafe X, a kiosk in San Francisco’s Metreon mall, a solid A-. Its makers say their tech’s advantage is consistency. Their robot uses recipes and ingredients tweaked by local roasters, and can prepare them the same way every time. (It helps that there are only a half-dozen drinks to choose from.) There is no algorithm for experience, but like a human barista, the Cafe X robot can adjust recipes on the fly based on temperature and humidity.

“The art part of coffee is the expertise in creating the beverage, not how well you can repeatedly do it,” says Cafe X founder Henry Hu. “That is repetition a robot can do.”

What can’t it do? Make those adorable foam drawings. At least not yet.

Unlike a human, there are no misheard orders or wasted supplies. That arm keeps separate orders flying at a pace of two a minute, cutting back on the rush hour lines that Starbucks has reported hold back sales. The robot also won’t screw up your name—yes, that is Geoffrey with a G.

The robot cafe even mostly cleans itself, though its makers had to prove that to the city health department, which was unclear at first whether to classify it as a mobile restaurant or vending machine. (They went with the former, although the kiosk doesn’t move around.)

Cafe X, which launched first in Hong Kong and raised $5 million in venture funding, says beyond malls and airports, it is targeting corporate and college campuses.

The idea of the automat has been around for over a century, but it isn’t yet clear what roles robots will play in the future of food. There has been a lot of experimentation lately in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. A grilled cheese chain called The Melt introduced mobile ordering and semi-automated tech that lets you know how long it will take for your food to be ready. Another called Eatsa automates the serving process—your human-made meal pops up behind a screen with your name on it. Zume Pizza uses a robotic arm to spread toppings on pies and get them into the oven.

Cafe X isn’t even the first robotic barista. A company called Briggo launched in Austin, Texas, in 2013 with a machine, tucked inside an automated kiosk, that produces highly customized coffee on demand.

With Cafe X, the robotic prep is part of the entertainment. You’re interacting with the robot and watching the coffee get made. It doesn’t necessarily make the corner coffee shop redundant. Starbucks blossomed into a global giant for its drinks as well as its safe haven, a “third place” for people to lounge outside of the house and office.

The Cafe X concept still has to prove itself at scale; robots come with a high fixed cost that can’t be ramped up just for the busiest times of day. Cafe X has a human “concierge” on hand to make sure the system is running and help customers who might be confused.

How wary should human baristas be? “There are a lot of things we still need them to do, like cleaning and filling,” says Mr. Hu. “What we don’t need them to do is move thousands of cups around. They’ll have a more enjoyable job.”

Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at


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