Why no robots at Starbucks?

Given the increasing costs of labor here in the U.S. and the sometimes long lines at Starbucks, why hasn’t the company converted production to robots? A friend has used a Swiss-made Jura every day for four years and the machine has never failed. It grinds the beans automatically and then can make espresso, cappuccino, and most of the rest of the stuff that people wait for at Starbucks. Presumably a Starbucks outlet would need multiple robots and the machines would need to be beefier than these home/office versions, but Jura has proved that it can be done.

This article from 2013 talks about a retail-scale coffee robot, but, unlike the Jura, it seems to be conflated with the idea of using Nespresso-style capsules.

Related: The wise white people on the New York Times editorial board propose a $12/hour minimum wage nationwide (see Milton Friedman for an explanation for how this is an attack on black workers)

15 thoughts on “Why no robots at Starbucks?

  1. I think Starbucks would like to avoid the idea that you can make this stuff yourself with a “coffee maker” (even a very nice one). Or customers of Starbucks want to pay a lot more for coffee to have that brand experience or signal, and a robot will significantly diminish that effect.

  2. In Britain, quite a few grocery store have some Costa robot inside. It looks like a armoire and provides a very nice coffee (cappuccino, latte etc., of different tastes). Price is obviously lower and there no person involved who asks your name.

    But you know… How the hell should I do my class consciousness routine with this non-premium bracket coffee?

  3. Because what they’re actually selling is the experience? Of being waited on by a professional “barista” pulling your perfect caramel macchiato, extra soy?

    If it wasn’t for that you could get your coffee for 1/3rd the cost at any McDonalds.

  4. They actually scaled back on automation, because of customer satisfaction issues, i.e. people feel ripped off paying $5 for a machine-made coffee.

  5. If people figure out how cheap and easy it is to make high-quality coffee at home, why will they goto Starbucks?

  6. Starbucks did indeed switch to “superautomatic” machines many years ago. Before that they had traditional manual machines with separate grinders and portafilters such as you could find in any Italian cafe (very high end La Marzocco machines – top of the line), but operating such a machine requires more skilled personnel. If they switched to totally robot machines, the customers would not feel as if the value proposition was there – might as well put your money in a vending machine. But what Starbucks has now is very similar to the Jura. They are Mastrena superautomatic espresso machines, made in Switzerland by Thermoplan AG – a heavy duty version of the Jura.

    This may look familiar if you have been in a Starbucks lately.


  7. The interaction is perceived as part of the product (wrongly, IMO, particularly at 7 AM). SBUX already has the resources to have its POS send orders to both espresso and brewed coffee machines. They basically have a working system, even for brewed coffee: http://sprudge.com/breaking-is-this-a-three-group-super-automatic-clover.html

    My guess is that in 2-3 years, mobile pre-ordering and payment (not labor time or cost) will tip the scales towards automated preparation.

  8. +1 Izzie L.

    Starbucks already went to fully automatic coffee few years ago, but milk is still semi-automatic. My prediction is that soon they will get automatic, but separate milk as well, so there still is some appearance of drink “preparation”.

    Before conversion to automatic coffee quality varied by location, people would know to go to this Starbacks and not that. With automatic it got to the same level, with occasional screw ups with milk. Then some time ago quality universally went down a step at all locations – did they switch to cheaper beans (again)? Or maybe quality control is not as good.

    The reason people drink Starbucks coffee is because they are bad at math. Good fully automatic machine is around $1000, so they see it as prohibitively expensive. The fact that they spend same amount on Starbucks annually escapes them. I used to get coffee every morning before work at the same Starbucks, I though “sure, getting my double short latte everyday is expensive, but I can afford it, knock, knock, knock”. I saw same people there every morning – fire fighters, construction contractors, nurses. While I understand why fire fighters think they can afford it, I’m still surprised about contractors and nurses.

    Ironically I bought my fully automatic DeLonghi few years ago for $800 during some crazy sale at Starbucks when they still sold coffee machines. Since then I make coffee for my ride to work at home.

  9. The reason people drink Starbucks coffee isn’t that they are “bad at math;” it’s because they enjoy the overall experience, the beverages, the atmosphere, the convenience and the familiarity as part of a routine and they rationalize the cost.

    It is readily possible to exceed Starbucks’ quality with home machines, but not with $800 plastic superautos. Sure, you can buy a cheap superauto, but it can’t produce the quality of beverage that a commercial superauto will produce let alone what a trained barista can make on automatic machines (not superauto, what your DeLonghi is and what Starbucks has with their Black/White and other Thermoplan machines.)

    SBuX has always sold coffee making equipment, no irony there, as it supports and extends the sales of their packaged coffee beans.

  10. I find it interesting that neither the nordic countries (historically the biggest per capita consumers of coffee) nor mediterranean countries like France and Italy, that have a reputation for their café culture, seem to chase after this chimerical ‘great’ coffee, and instead mostly drink coffee that Does Not Taste Like Shit.

    DNTLS coffee can be quickly produced by almost any coffee machine, even a $15 one, merely by following the instructions and using grounds that are less than a month old.

    When Europeans do go out to drink, they probably pay $4 or much less for DNTLS coffee, and expect it to be served to them at their table in a porcelain or glass cup by a waiter who, after studying the dark and mysterious art of making coffee, also went on to learn how to pour alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, as well as serve light snacks. All despite Europe’s drastically higher labor costs.

  11. @CHenry

    >The reason people drink Starbucks coffee isn’t that they are “bad at math;”
    Of course it’s oversimplification.

    >It is readily possible to exceed Starbucks’ quality with home machines, but not with $800 plastic superautos.
    (Mine is a bit more expensive, I was lucky to combine sale and 10% on your next purchase card). I mostly drink espresso and lungo, sometimes macchiato, and I live in Seattle suburb. There is a bunch of places to get better espresso than at home for me, but Starbucks is not one of them. (Again, I’m not sure why, because there was short period of time after rollout of their superautos when they were decent).

    >SBuX has always sold coffee making equipment, no irony there, as it supports and extends the sales of their packaged coffee beans.
    Not anymore. 6 years ago many Starbucks stores also sold $300 manual machine and couple superautos, but now these store don’t sell them anymore.

  12. >Again, I’m not sure why, because there was short period of time after rollout of their superautos when they were decent).

    A good human barista adjusts the grind when the shots are coming too fast or too slow. A good human barista cleans his machine periodically and calls a tech if the machines parameters such as brew temp go out of spec or the grinder burrs are worn, etc. Superauto machines are supposed to emulate all of these functions, but the emulation is not perfect.

    When a superauto is brand new, everything is perfect and clean and they can produce very credible coffee – not as good as a great barista but better than your average minimum wage employee could produce on a portafilter machine. After a while, especially when the machine sees heavy commercial use, things go out of spec and get dirty and the coffee starts to suck. Rancid coffee oils taste terrible. Since most Starbucks drinks are 80% milk, most people don’t notice.

    In Italy, coffee with milk in it is generally consumed only at breakfast, in the form of cappuccino, which is perhaps 1/3 coffee, 1/3 milk, 1/3 foam, maybe 6 oz. altogether. The “latte” (to the extent it exists at all) is something you would give to a small child or an old person who is too delicate to tolerate straight coffee and you would never give them a 20 oz. serving – as Southern Europeans they could probably not tolerate that much milk.

    When Thermoplan brought their machines to Starbucks, they had to redesign them with much larger steam boilers vs. the machines that they sell in Europe because of the huge amount of milk that Starbucks goes thru. Starbucks are basically purveyors of coffee flavored milk.

  13. The Thermoplan change was Starbucks’ solution to heavy employee turnover which left many stores expending large amounts of training time only to have to repeat the process as trained baristas would quit. They had special modular subsystems designed into the machines that allowed quick swap-out of malfunctioning parts to minimize downtime. The change was controversial. I see the trend is back to automatic portafilter machines in some of their stores, anyway.

    I’m not in Seattle, but I’ve been buying beans regularly from Velton’s, which to my taste is a step above the beans I used to buy from Intelligentsia and Starbucks. As for getting good results from a home superauto, you really need one with a metal brew group to keep the coffee hot to the cup. Even the higher end Juras are mostly plastic, but in the same price range, Quick Mill’s Monza Super Deluxe does have metal brew group construction. I’d like to try it, but as mostly an espresso drinker who only rarely makes milk drinks, I’ve used HX semiautos with enough success I don’t need to satisfy my curiosity that much, at least yet. You are fortunate to also be near Seattle Coffee Gear and other shops that carry better home equipment.

  14. @CHenry

    Good tip about metal brew group!
    When my DeLonghi quits (sometimes I hear hissing sound when it heats up, so my guess I’ll need replacement fairy soon), I’ll give Monza a try. I was thinking about going organi, I mean analog with grinder/portafilter, but I’m not sure day-to-day consistency issues and extra time in the morning is justified.

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