Cafe X, San Francisco

The robot arm at the heart of the Cafe X operation.One of the Coffee Spot’s tag lines is “places I like to have coffee”, so today’s Saturday (on-a-Wednesday) Supplement is something of a departure for me since I’m not sure I’d describe Cafe X as somewhere I’d like to have coffee. Somewhere I’d go to get coffee, perhaps, but it’s definitely not somewhere to have coffee. However, there I was on Monday, in San Francisco, minding my own business, when Cafe X announced its grand opening. A block from my hotel. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, so along I went.

So, what is Cafe X? Well, put simply, it’s an automated coffee shop, with a pair of high-end bean-to-cup machines and a robot arm that takes the place of the barista. There’s a choice of beans from local roasters, such as Verve (Santa Cruz) and Oakland’s AKA (previously known as Supersonic), plus a fairly standard selection of espresso-based drinks, but only one size (8oz). You order using one of the tablets attached to the Cafe X kiosk, or preferably ahead of time on your phone using the Cafe X app. Typically your coffee will be waiting for you in under a minute. Well, that’s the theory…

You can see what I found out in reality after the gallery.

  • In the heart of the Metreon mall in downtown San Francisco, something's happening!
  • Head in through the main entrance, go towards the back, and then follow the signs.
  • And this is it, Cafe X. The gleaming white future of coffee, perhaps?
  • Cafe X is an automated cafe, all based around this robot arm, which replaces the barista.
  • Here is it, heading off to collect a coffee...
  • ... and delivering it ready for collection.
  • And here it is, back in the neutral position.
  • Another key part of the operation: twin bean-to-cup machines which make all the coffee.
  • I have to say, though, for an automated operation, there's a lot of Cafe X people about!
  • So, how does it work? Well, you can use one of these handy tablets if you like.
  • However, the best option is to order via the Cafe X app on your phone.
  • The interface is pretty standard. All drinks are 8oz in size, which I approve of.
  • If you hit the 'Change Coffee' button on the main screen, you get a choice of beans.
  • Cafe X has partnered with local roasters: there's a fairly mainstream offering from Pete's...
  • ... a Honduran single-origin from Verve down in Santa Cruz...
  • ... and an Ethiopian blend from Oakland's AKA Coffee.
  • I went with the AKA blend, having visited Verve the day before. Now to choose my drink.
  • Naturally I went for the flat white. Syrups? I don't think so...
  • And here's my order, ready to submit. At any point, you can go back to a previous screen.
  • After ordering, you can either have made right now or delayed (eg you're on your way).
  • The app gives you a handy estimate of the wait & shows you the progress of your drink.
  • When your drink is ready, you get a PIN which you use to collect it.
  • Once you have your PIN, head over to any of the three collection points...
  • .. type in your PIN...
  • ... and the polite and friendly machine says hello.
  • Then it goes off to collect your coffee.
  • ... and puts it gently down on the pad.
  • Then it lets go...
  • ... and leaves it there.
  • Woah! Where's my coffee gone?
  • Oh wait, there it is. In the little alcove at the bottom. How neat is that?
  • And the finished article, waiting to be drunk.
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This post is a testament to the power of twitter. I had no idea about Cafe X until Monday morning, when numerous tweets popped up with links to articles about an automated coffee shop, Cafe X, which was launching that day. In San Francisco. And where was I? In San Francisco. Well, actually, San Jose, but I was going into San Francisco, returning to my hotel to collect my phone charger which I’d left behind when I’d checked out on Saturday. And where is Cafe X? In the Metreon mall, a block from my hotel. After all that, I felt I had no option. It was fate.

I think of Cafe X as akin to a coffee cart but without a barista, rather than a souped-up vending machine. To start with, in normal operation a member of staff will be there to talk about the various options, discuss the different beans on offer and to check that the coffee’s still tasting as it should throughout the day. In fact, doing everything a good barista dose except taking your order. And making your coffee.

[As an aside, I counted 10 Cafe X staff, including Cafe X founder, Henry Hu. That’s quite a lot for an automated machine! In defence of Cafe X, it was launch day, so basically the entire company had turned up to see how it went.]

Back to Cafe X. You order via a tablet or on your phone using the Cafe X app. I found it in intuitive and easy to navigate, while if you do get stuck, the aforementioned staff member is there to help. Cafe X has partnered with three local roasters, Pete’s, offering a traditional, darker roasted blend, and two speciality roasters, AKA (previously known as Supersonic) and Verve. Each option comes with the sort of tasting/origin notes you’d expect from a high-end coffee shop.

The choice of drink is limited: espresso, americano, americano with milk or various combinations of espresso and milk (cortado, flat white, cappuccino and latte). Quite what the variations are, I wasn’t sure since everything is served in an 8oz cup which will annoy some purists, but at least there are no buckets of coffee here.

The coffee’s made using a high-end bean-to-cup machine which does everything, including steaming the milk. A robot arm moves the cups around, from machine to a waiting area and then, when you’re ready to collect your coffee, to one of three serving pads where you use a PIN (sent to the app) to collect it.

I ordered a flat white with AKA’s Ethiopian blend and got, in return, a pretty good cup of coffee. I felt the milk dominated a little, but it was enjoyable and I’ve had a lot worse made by human hands! The ordering and collection process was smooth and straightforward and I can see it working well in busy environments.

Whether it’s for me or not, I can’t say. I like to go to places to have my coffee: this is definitely aimed at the busy, on-the-go customer. Plus, the biggest drawback for me is that it forces me to use a disposable cup. Cafe X is aware of this weakness and, in its defence, uses biodegradable/compostable cups plus you have to ask for a lid. The option of using customers’ reusable cups has been considered, but that’s fraught with technical and regulatory difficulties (apparently the Californian public health officials are not happy with the idea of “foreign bodies” being introduced to the kiosk…) so we shall see. In the meantime, I expect Cafe X to be a roaring success.

METREON • 135 4TH STREET • SAN FRANCISCO • CA 94103 • USA
www.cafexapp.com
Monday 10:30 – 20:30 Roaster Guests (espresso only)
Tuesday 10:30 – 20:30 Seating N/A
Wednesday 10:30 – 20:30 Food N/A
Thursday 10:30 – 20:30 Service N/A
Friday 10:30 – 21:30 Cards Amex, Mastercard, Visa
Saturday 10:30 – 21:30 Wifi N/A
Sunday 10:30 – 20:30 Power N/A
Chain International Visits 30th January 2017

You can see what Noah Sanders at Sprudge made of Cafe X, along with some interesting thoughts on its potential impact on the coffee shop of the future.


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