Watching a Cafe X robot prepare a cup of gourmet coffee — and then perform a kind of ritualistic dance — is kind of mesmerizing. I did so when the San Francisco company opened a new location at the San Jose International Airport.
Tucked away in the Southwest expansion wing (gates 31 to 36) in Terminal B, the Cafe X Robotic Coffee Bar is kind of hidden. But it’s at an airport that serves more than 15 million passengers annually, with 450 peak daily departures and arrivals. Henry Hu, CEO and founder, thinks it will be a good reaction.
In an interview with VentureBeat, Hu said, “We’re able to produce any kind of beverage basically. It can make anything that fits into our category like a hot or a cold brew, as you wish. When it isn’t busy, it dances. It’s always moving.”
It’s doing its best to show that its robot arm can beat a Starbucks human barista. The company gets its California-roasted coffee beans from famous roasters such as Ritual Coffee, Equator Coffees, and Intelligentsia Coffee. Premium ingredients also include Japanese matcha, Oatly (Swedish oatmilk), and organic milk from Clover Sonoma. Cafe X will also be offering Instagram-famous pastries from Third Culture Bakery, the creators of the Original Mochi Muffin and Butter Mochi Donuts. It can make drinks like nitrogen-infused lemonade.
Hu got the idea of a robot making coffee after he waited for over 30 minutes for coffee at an airport a few years ago. Now he wants to entertain guests with good coffee and a dancing robot barista.
Cafe X at SJC features an all new Robotic Coffee Bar that was designed and engineered with the insight and operational expertise from running three prototype machines in San Francisco since 2017, which have served hundreds of thousands of customers. The design is meant to be welcoming, with modern user interfaces, chill hip-hop beats, and a dancing robot create a familiar, yet futuristic specialty coffee experience unique to Cafe X.
You can’t actually reach inside and do any real damage to the robot by grabbing its arm. At least, not so easily. There are cameras in the airport, and when the robot puts a cup of coffee into a serving tray, it’s kind of like an airlock. It puts in the coffee, an interior glass door closes. Then the exterior door opens and you can grab the coffee. That helps protect the robot and the inside of the bar protected.
While you could say this is eliminating a human barista, Hu said that the company is also creating jobs. It has programmers and robot experts, and each one of its two robot bars (the other is in downtown San Francisco) has an attendant. The attendant can help you with your orders, which you make via a smartphone or the tablet kiosks.
“The attendant can make sure you have a good experience and talk about the quality of the coffee in more depth,” Hu said.
Is this going to kill a lot of jobs?
Hu doesn’t think so.
“Not only are we creating more interesting, less stressful, less physically demanding jobs for the retail worker, we also have this whole company that is engineering, designing, and manufacturing things,” Hu said.
Cafe X has more than 40 employees now, and it has raised about $15 million.
“The jobs lead to a better quality of life,” Hu said.
About 50% to 60% of the people that come into the store every day are repeat customers.
John Aitken, San Jose airports director of aviation, said in a statement that the Cafe X location will complement the high-tech airport and the techie travelers in the region. Coffee is the most-requested concession in the new area, he said. And while the Cafe X is open from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. now, it will be operating 24/7 soon, so travelers who are sleeping at the airport or workers can order coffee at any time. Try to get a human barista to work those hours.
When I watched the robot work, it messed up a couple of times because it had the wrong kind of grip. Hu ordered a new one so that it would grasp the cups better. But it was cool to see the robot do complicated tasks, like dispensing the coffee, adding foam, picking up the cup and letting it cool down on the counter, and then placing it in the box for the customer to grab. When the robot moves the cup, it tilts it a little so that it moves fast but doesn’t spill liquid. That’s pretty precise, Hu said.
The robot will also weigh the ice when it fills a cup with ice. If it needs more weight, it will add the ice.
The Cafe X bar design is also different. The counter where the drinks cool is new, and the Fanuc robot machine is slightly different.
So far, the robot isn’t really thinking. It doesn’t have machine learning. Rather, it’s hard-coded to do the tasks that it does.
“AI might be necessary when it reaches a certain capacity for production and you want to squeeze more efficiency out o fit,” Hu said. “But that hasn’t been necessary so far.”
Over time, Hu said that Cafe X could undertake more complicated task, like possibly cooking hot foods or more. That’s a matter of programming for the robot, as the bar itself has been designed to accommodate such cooking. It’s going to be a long time before Cafe X can have as many locations as Starbucks, which has more than 28,000 stores.
“If we built a thousand machines a year, it would take more than 20 years to catch up,” Hu said.
I got a mocha with oat milk, and it was pretty good. I couldn’t tell it apart from a Starbucks, except that the Cafe X coffee tasted a little better.