In a corner of San Francisco's Metreon shopping center, by the food court and adjacent to the movie theater, there's a robot barista.
Curious onlookers sidle up to Cafe X and peer inside the robot's DJ-style booth, which sits behind reinforced clear plexiglass. Silicon Valley tech types in need of caffeine stroll up and tap out an order on a nearby tablet or the app (iOS, Android). This being San Francisco, each cup is a custom creation. Choose your local artisan roasters, potency of bean, type of milk (or oats-based non-dairy alternative), and coffee expression.
Once the order is in, the industrial-style robot arm briskly moves to the grinder, selects the components of the order, places a cup under the high-end coffee machine, brings the milk to the perfect temperature, and—in a lovely sweeping motion—places the cup in a small opening in the enclosure.
The robot can prepare 120 drinks an hour. No fuss, one-tap ordering and cashless payments reduce wait time to about 10 seconds—perfect for caffeine fiends. In the event of a glitch, though, the cafe does have a human onhand.
Is the coffee good? Sadly, I recently quit coffee for health reasons (yes, it was hell), so I had to rely on questioning passers-by, who all said it was a damn fine cup of coffee. Aesthetically speaking, the robot does a lovely crema finish on top.
Cafe X's founder and CEO, Henry Hu, grew up Hong Kong, and came to the US to study technology, entrepreneurship, and design at Babson College in Massachusetts. He dropped out to become a Thiel Fellow last year, and focus full-time on spearheading automation in quick serve restaurants (QSR), starting with Cafe X, where we met up with him for a chat.
Henry, what was your inspiration to start Cafe X?
I was standing in line to grab a coffee at the Singapore Airport, and it just took so long, over 30 minutes, it was so frustrating. I knew there had to be a better way to deliver great coffee, quickly and efficiently. So I started working on concepting Cafe X there and then. I realized that, if you look at chain cafes today, a lot of what the staff are doing, pushing buttons, moving cups around, are automated tasks, low-productivity and kinda robotic. I wanted to come up with something cool, that gave you a better experience.
Did you program the robot yourself? Is based on ROS?
We don't program it in ROS, as Mitsubishi has its own software to teach the robot, but we did spend a lot of time smoothing out the motion, adding a wave into the mix, got a lot of feedback from customers and incorporated that into improvements. Basically, our Cafe X software layer, which is Linux-based, communicates with Mitsubishi PLC programming language which controls industrial automation, and we built out our own native apps and ordering system.
Is there a human in the loop?
Yes, we're a startup of 12 people. There are technicians who clean the machine, and restock supplies, and there's always a product specialist on site to answer questions during operating hours. Behind the scenes, we have software and hardware engineers of course.
What's the profile of your customers and how do you gather that data?
We're tracking a bunch of metrics, so we know which roaster is most popular. We're also storing data via the app and doing precise analytics to help us improve the product and re-ordering supplies efficiency. For instance, we know that 20 percent of our customers at this location are requesting the non-dairy alternative milk, so there's a demand there.
Are you going to build in some socio-emotive style features, including voice, to your robot? Will it have facial recognition or draw from the app information to greet customers by name?
We've looked at a lot of ways to identify customers—we've tested geo-fencing and low energy Bluetooth—but nothing seamlessly worked right now, for everyone, and we want everything to be foolproof before we install it. We're working on an upgraded version of the app now with a bunch of cool features, like quick re-ordering of favorite items and recommendations based on your order this week.
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Where's your next location?
Our focus is the US market. We are also going to manufacture our machines in the Bay Area soon. Expect us to launch another San Francisco-based Cafe X location soon.
We've also had interest from corporations looking for in-office setups. Looking further out, our long-term goals are to increase productivity within the QSR food business, so expect us to move beyond coffee into the full-stack—manufacturing the automation hardware/software layer, as well as owning and operating the food business, too.
Finally, what's your own favorite beverage served at Cafe X?
I usually order a cappuccino. But I also love Really Good Chocolate ($2.50).