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What regular Joes think about the one-armed robot baristas invading San Francisco

Speedy caffeine delivery is Café X’s X factor, and the coffee’s decent, too.
March 9, 2018
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Robots may be coming for our jobs, but even in a tech-centric city like San Francisco, it usually seems they haven’t gotten here yet. That’s changing, though, as a local startup called Café X starts rolling out robotic baristas that dole out lattes and cappuccinos with mechanical flourishes.

Café X now has three robots operating behind glass cases in downtown San Francisco, two in shopping-heavy areas and one in the middle of the Financial District. You can order a drink in advance through a smartphone app, or just walk up to one of its locations and do so on a touch screen.

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The robot—an arm, really—brings a cup to and from a machine that actually makes the coffee, or pulls cups of cold brew from a tap. When you enter a numerical code on a touch screen in front of the robot’s, er, cage, it places your drink on a platform so it can be lowered into a slot, kind of like a prize in a claw machine at an arcade. If you need help figuring out how to order, or finding a lid for your cup, there are also some human employees on hand (well, for now, at least). 

Coffee is serious business in San Francisco, with locals and tourists already willing to wait in long lines for their favorite drinks. We talked to 12 customers over two days at two Café X locations to see if the robot experience increased their coffee satisfaction.

Among our questions: Was the experience better or worse than visiting a regular café? Could they imagine getting their morning coffee from a robot every day? Does the appearance of robot baristas foreshadow robots’ replacing food service workers, or  is Café X just a fun novelty? Most important, how does the coffee taste? The answers reveal good and bad news for humans, barista and consumer alike.

  • People said they liked seeing the robot grab drinks—more interesting than watching a barista pour one out of a spigot, one said—and they liked that it waved when it was done making a beverage. That said, they wished it could do more; Kelly Fong, a product manager for a recruiting software company, was disappointed that it couldn’t put sugar in her Americano (though Café X’s coffee machines can add syrups to your drink).

“I think it’s a nice idea, but I think there’s quite a ways to go in terms of the technology,” she said.

  • The speed of the transaction at Café X was the benefit cited most by visitors. Some said that in a coffee-dense area, they are happy to return if that’s where the line is shortest. Others who weren’t that impressed by the coffee said they would become Café X regulars only if they needed a drink in a hurry.

  • Many people said they would use it again, and some had already gotten coffee drinks at one or more locations multiple times.

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, most people rated their drink a 7 or higher; 7 or 8 were the most common ratings given. Criticisms included a mocha that was “just a little bit too sweet,” an Americano that was “more watery-tasting than coffee-tasting,” and (from one person) “I don’t love the coffee.”

  • And yet, people said they like chatting with baristas at their regular coffee shops—some so much so that they wouldn’t want a robot to be their regular latte or cappuccino server.

“It’s neat,” said Benjamin Osgood, a commercial real estate advisor sipping an Americano. “But is it going to get me to stop going to my local barista? No.” 

Additional reporting by Martin Giles

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