In the food industry, it seems, the robot revolution is well underway, with machines mastering skilled tasks that have always been performed by people.
In Boston, robots have replaced chefs and are creating complex bowls of food for customers. In Prague, machines taking orders through an app are displacing bartenders and servers. In Denver, they’re taking orders at a fast-food drive-through.
Robots are even making the perfect loaf of bread these days, taking charge of an art that has remained in human hands for thousands of years.
Now comes Briggo, a company that has created a fully automated, robotic brewing machine that can push out 100 cups of coffee in an hour — equaling the output of three to four baristas, according to the company.
Using a blend of Latin American beans, the machine — known as a “coffee haus” — creates cups of gourmet coffee that can be ordered via an app, giving customers control over ingredients, espresso shots, flavorings and temperature. The company says no other business in the world has applied as much technology to “specialty coffee.”
Removing the human element from ordering a cup of coffee is one of the company’s selling points.
“No more lines, no more counter confusion, no more misspelled names,” Briggo’s website says.
Briggo said its eight machines are owned by the company, but it recently began offering a licensed business model to prospective operators. The company didn’t reveal how much that business model costs but noted that rent and revenue-sharing arrangements are typical when a machine is placed in a public location, such as an airport.
Kevin Nater, Briggo’s president and chief executive, said the machine would thrive in locations in which convenience is highly valued, like airports and office buildings, where several of the 10-by-4-foot machines are operating.
“Imagine you’re coming into the security line at the airport, your flight is coming up, and you know that if you want a coffee, you’re gong to stand in a long line,” Nater said. “From the security line, you can simply order your cup of coffee and pick it up at the coffee haus and make it to your flight on time.”
“I’ve never found anyone who wants to stand in line a long time,” he added. “We’ve just changed the game.”
It seems others agree. This year, Fast Company magazine named the Austin-based company one of the 10 most innovative companies in the world. Briggo is not alone in the automated coffee space. When the company debuts its latest machine in San Francisco International Airport in May, the robot will face off with Cafe X, an automated coffee bar from San Francisco. Cafe X uses a robotic arm to operate espresso machines and promises that your locally roasted coffee will be engineered with “robotic precision.”
The machines arrive at a time when ready-to-drink coffee, such as bottled drinks found in supermarkets and convenience stores, continues to explode in popularity, according to CNBC.
Nater said he has no doubt his machine makes cups of coffee as well, if not better, than a barista. Referring to the robot as a “high-speed, totally controlled food factory,” he said that unlike human workers, a machine doesn’t get flustered when business gets busy. By looking at analytics, he can ensure that the robot is hitting “all of its quality marks,” he said.
But Oliver Geib, a 24-year-old barista at Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis, remained skeptical. Being able to subtly gauge the water-to-grind ratio as flavor develops through refined taste tests is a crucial part of the process, he said.
“All the numbers and data in the world can’t actually tell you how the coffee tastes,” Geib said. “A big part of what a human brings is being able to taste the coffee during the process of dialing in the flavor.”
Fast-food restaurants like Starbucks, Wendy’s, Panera and McDonald’s encourage customers to order using self-service kiosks or a mobile app.
Asked how Briggo would affect employment, Nater said food service companies have a hard time retaining workers and are often short on staff, especially in airports, where turnover is high.
“We don’t think we’re replacing people,” he said. “We are creating a high-tech retail and marketing business and developing jobs in the process. We just hired two people in the Bay Area, where we are opening a new location in the spring.”
But automation critics claim that machines ultimately harm more workers than they help. Last month, Erikka Knuti — communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union — said too many businesses treat customer service as a line-item cost instead of an investment. In addition to eliminating jobs, she said, removing people from transactions degrades the product that businesses are selling.
“Retailers and businesses underestimate the importance of the customer service interaction, that point when a customer hands over their money and they get a warm smile in return that tells them they’re valued,” she said.
Asked whether he was worried about losing his job to a robot, Geib said, “Absolutely not.” Though he sees the value in robots making coffee at particular locations, he said, there’s a loyal group of people who will always seek out the slower, interactive experiences at coffee shops.
“A lot of customers really appreciate watching a barista carefully pouring water or steaming the milk or adding a little flourish to their drink,” he said. “The social aspect, the atmosphere and the interaction with the barista is a big part of the experience of drinking coffee.”