Jerry Ponzer from Messenger Coffee talks about his recent experience at Cafe X in San Francisco. Cafe X: Robotics Meets Specialty Coffee is an insight into how the coffee industry is paving the way for technology in customer experiences.
Convenient coffee is not always great coffee. On a recent trip to San Francisco from Kansas City, my girlfriend and I found that out the hard way. Our flight was at 6am, so we got to the airport at 4am. KCI (Kansas City International) has few options for coffee, so we stopped at a kiosk inside the terminal where they got our drinks (and names) wrong.
Upon arrival, we quickly realized that cafes in San Francisco are very different from cafes in the midwest. Sure, they all serve drinks and have a space to hang out for a bit, but that’s where similarities end. With San Francisco’s much denser population, a growing tech sector, and an ever-inflating housing market, space is always at a premium- even in cafes. Very few shops that we visited had more than one or two token power outlets, the wait times were 10-15 minutes for drinks (even with several baristas working), and the cafes were always packed (sometimes we just got our coffee and left).
Cafe X has three locations in the heart of downtown San Francisco near the financial district. One kiosk is in a mixed use space near a movie theater food court, the second is a brick-and-mortar location on Market St, and the newest is outdoors at 1 Bush St. The Bay area company is currently expanding its in-house manufacturing operations to make additional robotic cafes. Some locations also carry baked goods from Third Culture Bakery, with plans to expand that service as well.
We saw many new cafes and shops that turn traditional service on its head. Tartine Manufactory has a traditional line for pastries and a sit down concept with a shared espresso bar. At La Vive Tarte, you order drinks and grab pastries in one line, but pick up your drinks on a bar near the exit. Standard Market provides an Amazon Go-like experience with cashierless checkout. Cafe X is a company in San Francisco that builds robotic kiosks to serve locally roasted coffee really fast. It has an easy to use app for ordering. Before our trip, I reached out to Cafe X with questions about how the robotic arm and app works, and honestly, if the coffee was any good.
Cafe X is a company in San Francisco that builds robotic kiosks to serve locally roasted coffee really fast.
My girlfriend and I downloaded the app on our phones. First-time customers get a free drink and if you invite friends you get a $5 credit. Start by selecting a location (some variance in drinks); next, choose a drink and pick an espresso ($1 upcharge for single origins); then milk and flavoring options.
Crystal, my girlfriend, ordered a cortado (per usual) from her phone and chose the standard espresso, Intelligentsia’s Black Cat, and I ordered a flat white but opted for an Ethiopian espresso from Ritual. The kiosk started by making the drinks on an automatic machine with assistance from a robotic arm. An attendant dials in the espressos each morning and the system maintains it throughout the day. Both drinks were made simultaneously and served in two different doored-cubbies (which won’t open without a code the app sends you, so you never get someone else’s drink). From order to first sip was less than a minute.
My flat white was amazing; the espresso had a dried fruit character that married well with the milk temperature -- one of the best milk drinks I had all trip. Crystal’s cortado had a good milk texture, but the Black Cat espresso’s boldness overwhelmed the smaller amount of milk. The attendant asked us how the drinks were and offered to remake the cortado with a different espresso. We asked them how they liked working there, and they said they loved it! They had been a barista before, but enjoyed the customer interactions more than cranking out drinks during a rush. At this time there is no option for physical or digital tips for the attendants.
Cafe X offers something to fill in a gap - decent espresso drinks made quickly without the line, helpful attendants to walk you through the experience, and placement in locations that make it easy to grab a coffee between points A and B. When the novelty of having a robot make you a latte wears off, we’ll come to see places like Cafe X as simply a place to get great coffee on the go.
About Jerry Ponzer
Jerry Ponzer is a 2018 Brewers Cup qualifier from Kansas City, MO. As a barista at Messenger Coffee Company and lead barista at Crows Coffee, Jerry loves to write about his coffee experiments and his amazing experiences with the beverage around the world. Follow Jerry on Instagram @jerryponzer