Should Starbucks Replace Its Baristas With Robots?

What's to come?
Oct. 18 2013 11:38 AM

The Rise of the Coffee Machines

Should Starbucks replace its baristas with robots?

Briggo automated barista.
Coming soon to an airport, college, hospital, or office near you.

Courtesy Briggo

Starbucks is, by most accounts, a decent place to work. It trains its employees thoroughly. It gives them benefits, even if they’re part-time. It calls its baristas “partners,” which is hokey but also indicative of its desire to make them feel valued. Not only is Starbucks a responsible employer—it’s a vast and still-growing one. That’s because, while U.S.-based companies can stitch clothes in Bangladesh, build iPhones in China, or outsource call centers to India, a hot latte has to be made pretty darn close to where it’s served. The food-service industry is considered by economists to be part of the “nontradable sector,” meaning that its jobs can’t be outsourced.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

But what if they could be automated? What if Starbucks were to someday replace its 100,000-odd baristas with machines?

Christopher Mims asked those questions in a Quartz story this week headlined “An army of robot baristas could mean the end of Starbucks as we know it.” In July, Businessweek wrote a similar piece: “Baristas, Meet the Robot That Wants Your Job.”

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To be clear, there’s no indication that Starbucks has any plans to dump its workers for machines. A spokeswoman for the company told Quartz that it wouldn’t move in the direction of automation because that would “diminish what we offer every day.” But even if Starbucks doesn’t do it, others will. And if they succeed, it could have broad implications for the future of the economy.

The stories center on an Austin, Texas-based startup called Briggo, which has created a fully automated, one-stop coffee kiosk that churns out what it believes is a superior cup of joe. You can order and pay by smartphone, customize the brewing process to your precise specifications, and schedule it to be ready for pickup the minute you arrive. And it really doesn’t care if you say “venti” instead of “large.”

Robot-brewed coffee might sound like a bizarre, even retrograde concept in an industry that fetishizes the artisanal and eschews mass production. Anyone who has tried coffee from an office vending machine can vouch for the value of the human touch. But, contrary to what you might expect, Briggo’s goal in automating coffee is not to make it cheaper or more portable. It’s to make it better.

Here’s the concept, as explained to me by Briggo CEO Kevin Nater: “There’s this unbelievably beautiful supply chain for coffee,” he says, from the way the beans are painstakingly cultivated and harvested in countries like Honduras to the way they’re packed and shipped and roasted to perfection—“and then, at the last step, when you’ve spent all this time and money trying to make the perfect product, there’s a person brewing the coffee. And that has the potential to really just kill the customer experience. So why not automate it?”

As Quartz’s Mims points out, Nespresso machines, which automatically brew a cup when you insert a vacuum-sealed capsule, have topped hand-brewed coffee in tastings. Briggo applies similar concepts on a larger scale. Each 50-square-foot, Yves Béhar-designed kiosk is stocked with fresh milk, beans, and other ingredients, and whips up frothy, made-to-order cups according to a process the company developed with the help of an award-winning barista. From the Quartz story:

Inside, protected by stainless steel walls and a thicket of patents, there is a secret, proprietary viscera of pipes, storage vessels, heating instruments, robot arms and 250 or so sensors that together do everything a human barista would do if only she had something like perfect self-knowledge. “How is my milk steamer performing? Am I a half-degree off in my brewing temperature? Is my water pressure consistent? Is there any residue buildup on my brewing chamber that might require me to switch to a backup system?”
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