The world’s first coffee shop opened in Constantinople in 1555. Four hundred and some years later, Cafe X is putting a twist on that old barista model. Opening in San Francisco today, the startup is opting instead to have a large robotic arm craft your caffeinated potions.
Founder Henry Hu noticed that baristas spent a majority of their time moving cups around while making espresso drinks. So, much like anyone’s natural reaction to that epiphany, Hu decided to build a fully mechanized coffee shop. At scale, Cafe X should be able to increase margins within the industry while reducing wait times for hurried patrons.
Third-wave coffee affectionados dealing in drips and expensive siphons might find fault in Hu’s thesis, though a Mitsubishi 6-axis industrial robot is arguably the most “elite” tool imaginable for making coffee.
Customers visiting Cafe X’s first US location at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco will be able to order espresso drinks involving milk and flavorings from on-site kiosks and a dedicated app. Visitors have their choice of beans from AKA Coffee, Verve Roasters and Peet’s Coffee. Cafe X’s only other location is in the Hong Kong Science Park. The idea is that each new location can source beans locally.
The entire experiment is backed by a $5 million seed round raised last year from Khosla Ventures, Social Capital, Jason Calacanis, Felicis Ventures, Silicon Valley Bank and The Thiel Foundation.
The funding underscores a broader trend in the Valley of VCs backing food and beverage startups using robotics to cut costs. TechCrunch covered Zume Pizza, a robot-assisted pizza delivery service headquartered in Mountain View last September. The Zume team raised its Series A in July 2016.
Both Zume and Cafe X benefit from popular interest in automation and robotics. It’s not every day that a business innovation simultaneously cuts costs and adds to the marketing budget.
Despite society’s deep-seated facilitation with robots, the perilous transition to a more automated economy still gives many people anxiety.
“We still have to work on the supply chain, recipes, maintenance, and customer support,” Hu said when asked about Cafe X’s role in this broader trend.
More concretely, the startup is looking to build more of its robotic kiosks in the United States in Fremont, California. And as many arguments for automation go, consumers will be directly benefitting from cheaper prices. Cafe X is asking just $2.25 for an 8 oz drink that regularly goes for $4 – $5 in San Francisco.
Time will tell whether the grab and go establishment will prosper South of Market, a place dominated by tech folk with a penchant for working remotely and loitering over lattes. But burrowing itself in a space frequented by the curious, without much coffee competition, should help to drive foot traffic to the spot.