Robots Still Not Terrific at Making Lattes

Ready to dump frothy milk on top of some espresso. Photo: Cafe X

It’s now one year into robots’ takeover of the boutique-coffee scene, and Cafe X Technologies’ $25,000 animatronic-arm barista is still turning heads inside of two (soon to be three) very San Francisco cafés. For $3 to $4, the contraption will churn out a cortado, flat white, matcha latte, or nitro cold brew, and can do about 120 of them per hour; it even has oat milk for the vegans and lactose-intolerant. The whole robo-barista concept was pitched at its 2017 debut as an entertaining, incredibly consistent upgrade to the (human-based) third-wave coffee experience, but CNBC checked in on Cafe X and chatted with CEO Henry Hu this week, and it’s not clear their barista-bot is a future that fussy coffee drinkers will abide.

Cafe X has made the obligatory disclaimer about “not trying to replace baristas,” but Hu actually tells CNBC that’s exactly why he invented the machine. (“The baristas to me looked like factory workers,” he says of his thoughts at the time. “They were moving cups around and pushing buttons, which made me think, ‘I bet we can build a product that automates these boring tasks way more efficiently.’”) At the current Cafe X locations, a human still goes by roughly once a day to refill beans, restock milk, and clean the unit — which must please the AI overlords supremely because that’s the mundanest, boringest task of them all.

The thing is, as a substitute for your local barista, it kind of still sucks. For example, there’s an important thing it curiously cannot do: Despite offering a bevy of espresso drinks with minute differences, it can’t froth milk properly, much less achieve anything approximating latte art. Customers might still be so into the novelty of the whizzing mechanical arm that they don’t care for now, but the Caffè Latte and Really Good Matcha Latte shown in Cafe X’s video — which are presumably the closest the bot can get to a latte’s platonic ideal — still look like the push-button fare you’d get from a crusty bodega machine.

The novelty factor is diminished, too, by the third-wave world’s adoption of automatic brewing methods in recent years. Your local artisan café now probably has a big Fetco urn of premade coffee. Even pioneers like Stumptown and La Colombe employ devices — albeit usually ones with some sort of steampunkish flair — that can produce cups of good coffee much faster than even the ablest barista.

So far, Cafe X’s team has around $7 million in funding. It’s gotten a Thiel Foundation grant and seed money from influential investors, like Khosla Ventures and an Uber co-founder. It’s also brought onboard the design firm that did Square’s mobile-sales platform, Lyft’s so-called “Glowstache,” and Dr. Dre’s Beats. Cafe X says demand is high and the curiosity factor is “even higher,” and its attention is on scaling the robo-barista for more mass production. It’s likely to only crank out 15 new bots this year, but warns that additional locations will launch in 2019. For what it’s worth, Starbucks has “no plans to add robots to its 20,000 locations.” (CNBC double-checked.)

Robots Still Suck at Making Lattes