The Barista as John Henry

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The alternate title for this post could be “Welcome our Robot Overlords” or perhaps, “Resistance is Futile.”

The robots are coming after all, just like the steam-powered shovel came for John Henry. In the end it didn’t matter that John Henry could drive steel so well that he did in fact beat the machine in a head-to-head match. It was a pyrric victory of course as John Henry died at the end. Sorry, SPOILER!

It didn’t matter because the contest was never between the machine and the best human; it was between the machine and the average human, really. Once a machine can deliver the results just as reliably (and cost-effectively) as a the average human, well then you get statements like this “Kitchens are just factories we haven’t automated yet.” The quote is from a story on the Briggo. And the article makes the Briggo sound a bit like this from Kyle Reese describing the Terminator: “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

Seriously, this is how the Briggo is profiled in the story:

It doesn’t need sleep. It’s precise in a way that a human could never be. It requires no training. It can’t quit. It has memorized every one of its customers’ orders. There’s never a line for its perfectly turned-out drinks.

It doesn’t require health insurance.
But really the Briggo is just an automated coffee maker. Ok, well, it’s more than that. It’s an automated kiosk that produces coffee made-to-order to the customer’s specifications. And the kicker, really, the whole raison d’etre is this the Briggio removes the human part of the equation:
“What we’ve created is in essence a small food factory that absolutely replicates what a champion barista does,” says [Briggo CEO Kevin] Nater. Briggo roasts its own beans—sourced by a pair of coffee supply veterans who between them spent a combined 40 years at Starbucks. “We have calibrated this machine to pull espresso shots to the same specification as an Illy or a Stumptown or an Intelligentsia. We’ve just done it without the human element.”

And why is the human removed from preparing the coffee and interacting with the customer? Because humans sometimes make mistakes. Humans have a hard time doing something the same way every time without question. But robots? Repeatability is their whole gig!

You know that joke about the two guys in the woods, being followed by a bear, and one puts on his running shoes? “You really think you’re going to outrun the bear,” says the first guy. And the second one says, “No, but I don’t have to. I just have to outrun you.” From the story then there’s this:  ”Briggo doesn’t have to be better than the best baristas in the world. It just has to be better than the nearest coffee shop.”

All of this leads me to the latest issue of Barista Magazine, and specifically Erin Meister’s story “Consistency: Why It’s Essential.” Absolutely consistency and excellence in craft and service are elemental to a successful café, and the better a café can do in making sure all of its baristas are highly-trained, motivated and damn good at their jobs, the better the café will do. But automation will always be close at our heels.

I believe there’s a market for automated coffee makers in the future just like there’s one now. But I don’t believe a real quality coffee experience can ever be replicated by an automated kiosk, at least not until we get robots like the kind Dr. Noonian Soong makes. We can get the same experience repeated over and over again, but is that really what we’re looking for when we go to a café? Certainly we want excellent service and terrific coffee, but removing the human aspect of the interaction is also removing a huge link in the seed-to-cup chain, and turns coffee which so many professionals baristas have worked so hard and long at to be recognized as a culinary creation back into a mass produced commodity.

And finally if I want an entire coffee experience from a machine, I’ll just visit Dennis Duffy’s at the corner of 38th and 6th in the basement of KMart.

About the Author

Ken

Kenneth R. Olson is co-founder and publisher of Barista Magazine the worldwide trade magazine for the professional coffee community. He has written extensively about specialty coffee, traveled near and far for stories, activities, and fun, and been invited to present on topics important to coffee culture. He is also an avid fan of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Washington Huskies. Go Blazers! Go Dawgs!