The robot will take your coffee order now

July 30, 2013

Back in the mid-1960s, the owner of the Brickskeller, that early early adopter of craft beer near Dupont Circle, spent $100,000 to create the robot bartender. Apparently Feliz J. Coja just couldn't find enough talented barkeeps to staff his joint.

Since then, companies have twisted themselves into knots trying to develop machines to displace those fallible, all-too-human employees who produce, cook and serve our food and drinks. So we have conveyor belts for sushiautomatons for waiters, robotic noodle makers and even Hortibots for planting seeds, to name just a few.


Barista in a Box. Briggo's new "intelligent" Coffee Haus at the University of Texas. (Casey Dunn/Briggo Coffee Haus)

Today, the Austin-based Briggo Coffee introduced one more inanimate object to satisfy our cravings: the "intelligent" Coffee Haus on the campus of the University of Texas. The fully automated kiosk allows customers to place pre-orders via smartphone and receive a text when their caffeinated drinks are ready, "eliminating the long waits and variability typical of standard coffee shops," according to a Briggo release.

The company's robotics, which "emulate the motions of a champion barista," will grind and brew each drink to order, using direct-trade beans, fresh milk and "gourmet" syrups. “Our Coffee Haus creates artisan coffee drinks 24/7 with a level of accuracy never before seen in the coffee world," Kevin Nater, Briggo's chief executive officer, said in the release today.

Briggo sees its UT operation as a template for many such robotic coffee shops in airports, hospitals, college campuses and the like. Translation: You may never again have to wait on a tat-stamped barista who's sneering at you for ordering a double mocha latte with extra whip.

Some local coffee shop owners had mixed reactions upon hearing about Briggo's mechanical plan to overtake the Starbucks of the world.

"Here's the problem," e-mailed Joel Finkelstein, the owner and roaster behind Qualia Coffee in Petworth. "Coffee is a natural product and by that token highly variable depending on both agricultural factors and post-harvest processing. In addition, the brewing properties of freshly roasted coffee changes day-by-day, hour-by-hour."

"In my experience," Finkelstein continued, "I have never come across an automated coffee maker that deals well with fresh roasted coffee. A human being can learn to compensate for the eccentricities of the brewing process, but for a machine to apply the skills of a trained barista in a consistent manner, consistency also has to be imposed on the coffee. This is achieved by blending it to homogeneity, roasting it to death or allowing it to stale, all of which yield a predictably bland cup of coffee."

I checked with a PR representative with Briggo, who noted the company currently sells only a single, medium-to-dark roast coffee, blended with beans from Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia. The robot doesn't do single-origin coffees, but it does prepare everything from an espresso to an iced chai latte.

Bean and roast qualities aside,Chinatown Coffee Co. founder Max Brown likes at least one aspect of the Briggo Coffee Haus: its pre-ordering system. Brown says his customers sometimes have to wait seven minutes in line just to order a drink, not to mention the time required to brew it. Personally, he'd love to install a front-end ordering system but doesn't have the time or capital required to design such a smartphone app.

"There's no reason to have to wait in a line for drinks in this day and age," he says. Perhaps, Brown wonders, Briggo will eventually license its smartphone app to other users? He'd license it for Chinatown in a heartbeat.

As for the coffee itself, Brown says there is a market for Briggo's robotically served drinks. It just won't be the same people who desire the specialty coffee experience found at shops such as Chinatown, Qualia and the Wydown.

"I applaud their innovation," he says. But "you can't compare it to a [specialty] coffee shop. It's like comparing a Yugo to a Ferrari. But if you compare it to their peer group, I think they'll be first in class."

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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