Some Good News for Beverage Bots ☕️
And a (partial) rebuttal to Digital Food Labs.
My tweenage son is on a group chat with some of his friends and surprise surprise, during the holiday break, said group chat lit up with pictures and talk of coffee robots. It was the holiday and one of his friends took pictures of Cafe X’s robo-barista at the SFO airport.
“You know, I know the inventor of that robot,” I said, proudly. “You could tell your friends that,” I suggested in full-on “dad” mode.
He, of course, just looked at me with a mixture of denial and confusion. Like I had suggested we give away the family dog. Ridiculous.
Sigh. Someday he’ll think I’m cool, right?
Anyway, it got me thinking about Cafe X and how they are doing. The food robot biz has hit a bit of a rough patch these past few months. Did holiday travel (and group chat buzz from the middle school set) help Cafe X buck that trend?
Hu emailed me that combined, the Cafe Xes in Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 at SFO did $15.5k during the Thanksgiving week. FWIW, last year around the same time, Cafe X did $11k with one machine. Hu attributed the lower performance for its Terminal 3 machine to the fact that SFO installed a new exit in right in front of the Cafe X machine. Hu went on to say that Cafe X’s record week this year was $21k.
I asked Hu about robot deployments and he said that there are now Cafe X machines at:
Two Fortune 100 corporate offices
Museum of the Future in Dubai
An independent cafe in Texas
SFO T1 and T3 (owned and operated by Cafe X)
Another robot is set to go live at a corporate campus in Germany and six more robots are in production, which have been pre-ordered with 50% down by customers.
Listen, those numbers reinforce the fact that food and beverage robots are not operating at scale — by a long shot — but Cafe X is still cranking away.
And it’s not the only beverage bot that’s bearing good news for the automation sector. Coincidentally this week over in Switzerland, Smyze shared some similar positive news. In an Economic Times story, Smyze said that it has drink robots (Smyze does more beverage options than just coffee) in six locations and is expanding rapidly.
In a follow-up email from the company, a Smyze rep told me that the company’s robot features new branding that highlights Swiss engineering, and that it is collaborating with Audi to put robots at new quick charging EV stations, and taht Smyze is opening its first location in Shanghai.
Again, these aren’t big scale-y numbers. But Cafe X and Smyze seem to be at least weathering a global pandemic and economic headwinds.
But both of these bits were a nice counterpoint to a recent article from the Digital Food Lab asking “Why Food Robot Startups Fail?” That story is worth reading — even if it does trot out that tired example of Zume. For the umpteenth time — Zume was not a robot company, it was a data and logistics company that used a couple of robots.
Anyway, the piece does ask the hard/good questions everyone in this market should be asking and you should read it! There were a couple points I’d like to push back on, though. From Digital Food Lab:
2- [Robots] don’t solve a real-world problem and are far from becoming profitable: what is the point of using a $25,000 robotic arm to serve coffee? Notably when it needs both a low-skilled worker to be supplied with beans and highly-qualified (and very expensive) engineers to keep it running? Too many ventures have experimented with that make no sense from a basic economic standpoint. Most can only be used in very controlled environments or for publicity stunts.
In a world where cars are still not autonomous and where after 10 years, Alexa is deemed a “colossal failure” by Amazon itself, can we really expect a robot to drive itself on the sidewalk to deliver food to our homes?
I agree that food and beverage robots are far from becoming profitable, but I completely disagree that they don’t solve a real world problem. In places like airports, train stations, hotels, hospitals, military bases and universities — there are plenty of people eating/drinking at non-traditional hours. Is it better to build out and staff and entire restaurant, or have an automated system running 24/7 (even if it does require a human to re-stock it daily)?
Perhaps its a matter of defining terms. Digital Food Lab may be narrowly defining food robots as big kiosks with articulating arms (which both Cafe X and Smyze have). But looking more broadly at automating certain types of food an drink through standalone mechanisms (a la vending machines) makes total sense.
When it comes to the Digital Food Lab take on delivery robots. I too, fear that they won’t find footing in the right setting. But comparing autonomous driving between a two-ton car traveling at highway speeds (or even 25 miles per hour) vs a squat cooler on wheels riding along at walking speeds is disingenuous.
Autonomous vehicle adoption involves very real world consequences that involve human life and public safety on a huge scale. A delivery robot bumping into your shin is not going kill anyone or cause a massive traffic snarls or infrastructure damage. The two types of autonomy shouldn’t be compared at all.
Besides, delivery robots have people either teleoperating them (a la Coco) or watching over their travels to help out if something arises (Starship, Kiwibot, etc.).
Food robots still have a long way to go to prove themselves, but it’s far too soon to throw in the towel just yet. I mean, there’s a generation of tweenagers fascinated by them.