Behind a large, curving window, Gordon is making me a latte. Generally, this would be an unremarkable feat—a little espresso, some steamed milk, a bit of paper cup shuffling—but I’m entranced. He swings back and forth with purpose and precision. No movement wasted, no full-cup caution, just utter caffeine-delivering efficiency. “Oh wow,” someone remarks nearby. “He really takes that fast.” Gordon is the new robotic coffee-making kiosk by Cafe X, which started pouring cappuccinos and flat whites inside the Metreon food court in San Francisco on January 30. The company’s first rig, Malcolm, opened in Hong Kong, but Gordon is their American debut. And judging by the crowds snapping pictures of his first week on the job, the coffee-making robot is making quite a splash.
The system works like this: Customers place their order on tablets or via the Cafe X app, choosing an espresso-based drink, a brand of beans (Verve or Peets), and any additional syrups. Then they type in their phone number, pay the bill, and Gordon gets to work.
While the kiosk offers a full array of espresso-fueled staples, it doesn’t do much in the way of customization. There’s only one size and one kind of milk, so no, Gordon can’t make you a grande half-caf, almond-milk latte in a venti cup, but he also won’t sneer at you for wanting a pump of caramel in your morning mood juice. He’s a robot. He literally couldn’t care less.
The Cafe X system is actually comprised of two distinct parts: a pair of German-made WMF coffee machines and a white Mitsubishi robotic arm. The machines make the espresso and steam the milk; the arm shuttles cups from dispenser, to machine, to finished area, to a tiny elevator that lowers your drink within reach. Though we probably shouldn’t anthropomorphize our robot overlords, it’s honestly kind of cute. If Gordon were mine, I’d glue a couple of googly eyes above his crescent-shaped hand and talk to him about my climate change anxiety and Netflix’s Crazyhead over a freshly brewed espresso. But he’s not, so when I get a text that my drink’s done, I type the corresponding code into a small tablet, and watch as Gordon swivels around to deliver a lovely, piping-hot latte.
Cafe X is the creation of Henry Hu, who was waiting in line for coffee at an airport when he had what seems like a fairly obvious epiphany: baristas spend a lot of their time carrying cups. “The reason for using the robot is there’s one job you have to do to make lots of coffee and that’s moving cups around,” says Hu. “The robot is not the barista. It’s moving the cup around.”
Hu says Cafe X lets humans do what humans excel at: designing recipes that taste good. Each roaster develops the perfect recipe for their beans, then the WMF machine executes the process exactly the same way every single time. If Gordon gets a good mix of dairy and nondairy orders, he can churn out up to 120 beverages an hour, but Hu doesn’t envision his machine taking over your local coffee shop. The founder sees Cafe X as a solution for high-traffic areas like food courts or airports. He’s already gotten inquiries from Bay Area tech companies about installing the system in office cafeterias.
As we watch the robotic arm sweeping to and fro like a coffee-making conductor, it places a cup under the spigot of one of the machines and Hu leaps into action. He opens a hidden door at the side of the contraption and gives the cup the gentlest nudge. A few seconds later, a stream of espresso pours into its waiting mouth.
Sometimes, Hu says, a cup comes out of the dispenser crooked, and Gordon, for all his grace, efficiency and automation, can’t adjust. In other words, sometimes even a robot needs a helping human hand.