Recently, a friend sent me an article about a new automated coffee machine and the threat it poses to Starbucks baristas (and other baristas around the world). A company called Briggo, based in Austin, Texas, has come out with a machine it claims makes better, more consistent coffee than even the best barista champions. The article implied that by removing the inconsistencies and hassles that come with human baristas, machines like the Briggo may replace the barista position someday.
Reading through the article, my reactions were mixed. The first one was, “That’s crazy, you’ll never replace baristas with a machine,” but then I sat down and tried to more calmly think through what evolving technology might mean for the coffee industry.
Let’s start with the coffee. Can a robot really make better, more consistent coffee than a human barista? Probably. I would venture that a skilled barista can make better coffee than the Briggo some of the time, but unlike the computer, baristas get tired, and other factors make them slip up once in a while. Even the best baristas would struggle to compete with the myriad sensors and other computerized technology embedded within the Briggo. No human can simultaneously monitor grind size, extraction time, pressure, temperature, humidity around the café, extraction percentage, etc., while logging the exact brew parameters for every shot as effortlessly as the Briggo can. Computerized controls can eliminate (nearly) all variation within the coffee-making process. The Briggo, in other words, would probably win in the coffee category (as much as it pains me to admit).
Next, the economics. I’m not sure how much the Briggo costs, but from a café owner’s perspective, having an automated barista would be attractive. There is a lot of challenges that managers must deal with when it comes to working with baristas. Finding people who fit your culture, who care about providing good service and get excited about coffee are hard to find. It takes time, money, and effort to find good people, and even then, managers often miss in their assessments of prospective employees. With a machine, you know what you’re getting, and you never have to worry about it waking up late, calling in sick, or just being in a bad mood. Machines do not want raises, health insurance, or time off. They don’t need unemployment insurance or worker’s compensation, and they don’t get poached by the competitor down the street. By these measures, a machine could significantly reduce the hassle of running a coffee shop (assuming the machine runs well, a big assumption for a complex machine).
If the Briggo makes more consistent coffee and reduces hassle for café owners, perhaps even making shops more profitable, what is to keep everyone from going to automatic baristas like the Briggo?
First, coffee quality is not nearly as important to the success of a business as one might think. Most people just want drinkable coffee, but they do not give a damn if it’s the best coffee in the world. People will happily drink wretched, burned-out diner coffee, if that’s what’s available at the place where they gather with their friends. They will not hesitate for a second about visiting a second-rate drive-through if it is conveniently located on their way to work.
Convenience is very important. One of the features the Briggo CEO mentions as one of its strengths is the fact that customers can order ahead and pay using their smartphones so that the coffee is ready when they get to the counter. I can see how this would be attractive to people tired of waiting in a café lines. However, making it possible to order ahead is a process that is duplicable in any café, given the availability of technology today (doesn’t Starbucks already do this?). It would not be hard to set up a system where orders come to the barista before a person ever walks into a café. Moreover, one of the things that creates the line in a café setting is the crush of people that converge on a café at the same time. Sending orders to a machine electronically is not going to eliminate that issue. In fact, it might exacerbate the problem, as orders can flood in even faster than they otherwise would. Physics and chemistry still govern how quickly coffee can be made, even inside a machine.
Another advantage of the Briggo stated in the article is that employees at (non-coffee) companies would no longer need their “Starbucks breaks,” where they leave the building to go get a coffee. It’s true that if a company could put a machine in its break room that spit out good coffee, workers could be more productive. But one of the main benefits of the coffee break is the opportunity to get out and clear your mind, to build camaraderie with colleagues. Allowing workers this type of freedom improves both morale and productivity.
And I quote:
A few more things that caught my eye in the article:
Think of it as an instrument people can use to create their ideal coffee experience.
Ideal coffee experience? I struggle to see what is ideal about walking up to a machine and serving yourself by picking up a paper coffee cup.
Its external appearance was designed by award-winning industrial designer Yves Behar, with the intention that it radiate authenticity.
If something has to try hard to “radiate authenticity,” it seems somewhat less than authentic. Visit Spella Caffè in Portland, or Caffe Trieste in San Francisco, and you’ll see authenticity. You can’t fake it. Not even Yves Behar, as skilled as he is.
“Coffee shops are a great social interaction point, but so is social media.”
As someone who has been writing a blog for the past three years, who am I to say that communicating via social media is not a valid way to connect with other people? That said, connecting online should be a precursor to connecting offline. By far, the best part of the blogging experience has been meeting people face to face and hearing their stories, going to cuppings and watching people get excited (or not) about a great coffee. You cannot duplicate those experiences in the virtual world.
Their recent hire of Starbucks vets who have backgrounds in sourcing, blending and inventing new and seasonal drinks is, they say, about making something that is the equal of any other “third-wave” coffee shop like Starbucks or Stumptown.
First of all, Starbucks is not a third-wave coffee company. Starbucks is the archetype of the second wave coffee shop. It is the company that followed Peet’s lead and spread the second wave around the world. Second, Stumptown’s coffee is not really comparable to Starbucks. Don’t try to pretend it is. Third, if it were only about the quality of the coffee, Starbucks would have been put out of business long ago by companies that came after it.
Think of this not as the epic chess showdown between Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue; think of Briggo, rather, as the Redbox video kiosk to Starbucks’ Blockbuster.
Granted, the Redbox video kiosk is convenient (and effective—Blockbuster just announced it is closing the rest of its US stores), but what happens if you want to find that movie that came out a year ago that you always meant to see, or if you feel like browsing the shelves to try something that may or may not be “recommended” for you. Taking a chance on an unknown is something that makes life interesting. I go to cafés once in a while, just to see how they treat the coffee. A lot of times, when I walk in the door, I know it’s going to be terrible, but that’s the point. My life doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.
Should our lives be curated by companies like Google, Amazon, and Redbox? What happened to our sense of adventure, the willingness to discover new things serendipitously? Feeling alive comes from interacting with people and experiencing new things, especially those we do not plan for.
People say that the march toward more technological integration in our lives is unstoppable. There is a theory, called singularity, that imagines a world where artificial intelligence is more advanced than human intelligence. When computers become smarter than humans, technology will advance even more rapidly than it does now. According to the theory, we will someday interact with machines as easily as if we were talking to our friends. Robots will rule the world, if we can even distinguish them from ourselves.
Hopefully, I’ll be long gone before this happens. I don’t have a burning need to interact more with machines. I spend too much time in front of a screen as it is, and, judging by all the people I see texting while driving, I’m not the only one. Whenever we come up with a technology that removes the need for a person, we should stop and ask ourselves if it is really worth it. Is going to make our lives better? Or is it going to take away a little piece of our humanity?
You could argue I should try the Briggo experience before I criticize it. Maybe, but this is more of a critique of the idea that baristas will soon be obsolete, not of any particular company. I already conceded that Briggo likely makes more consistent (and frequently better) coffee than many shops, even the good ones. That’s not the point. Interacting with baristas is an important part of the coffee experience, that cannot be duplicated by a machine. It cannot greet you with a smile (screens don’t count). A machine won’t ask you about your weekend or have a conversation with you about the coffee you’re drinking. A machine won’t radiate enthusiasm about the craft of espresso, nor will it notice when you look like you could use a pick me up and comp your drink.
Despite its limitations, I think Briggo will be a success. Briggo has plans to put the machines in airports, hospitals, and offices, places where bad coffee is all too common. Students at the University of Texas, where the first Briggo was installed, seem to like what it provides, as evidenced by the number who have taken their picture with the Briggo and posted it to Facebook (then again, maybe they were so enthusiastic because the company offered the chance to win a free camera in exchange). However, I do not foresee it replacing baristas, or the local coffeehouse. Too many people would rather have their coffee served by a human, thank you very much.