There’s no shortage of coffee shops in downtown Berkeley. But despite the variety of chain and local venues available to the discerning coffee connoisseur, all of them have at least two points in common: coffee and baristas. With the opening of Bbox, Berkeley’s first robot café, that list of commonalities is slashed in half.
Bbox, located inside the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, opened in January. Through a partnership with Highwire Coffee Roasters and Semifreddi’s bakery, customers can find many of the same items as they would at a traditional café — drip coffee, espresso drinks, juices, pastries — but at a significantly lower cost.
That’s largely because Bbox has eliminated one of the most expensive elements of operating a business: labor. Bbox has outsourced most of the work associated with running a coffee shop to robots or the customers themselves.
Here’s how it works: Customers place their order via Bbox’s mobile web app (an iOS app is in development) or via tablet outside the café. They create a customer profile, including phone number and payment information, as they would for a ride-hailing service. The app alerts the customer to how long before their order will be ready to pick up.
Meanwhile, behind a glass panel, a robotic arm selects cups and navigates an assembly line of beverage dispensers — placing the cup, pressing buttons, retrieving prepared drinks — and hands drinks off to a second robot, which positions the order for customer retrieval. The effect is not all that different from watching a Tesla get assembled.
When the order is ready, the app texts a PIN that the customer enters into any one of Bbox’s three dispensers to retrieve their order. No human servers needed.
While the company is in beta, visitors will likely interact with at least a few organic life forms at the registers. Just don’t call them baristas.
But there is good news for those who prefer the familiarity of a first-name basis with their favorite carbon-based baristas. The robots have names. “Jarvis” is the machine that positions orders for customer pickup, named after a robot butler of the Marvel universe, while the robo-arm that preps all the drinks is “Bev,” short for beverage.
While the company is in beta, visitors will likely interact with at least a few organic life forms at the registers. Just don’t call them baristas. “That’s not really our job,” said Suzi Scelzi, a brand ambassador for Bbox.
“More so it’s our job to inform people what [Bbox] is and to then transition them to our web platform,” she said. “Bev is the real barista.”
What Bev and Bbox as a whole can offer is consistency. “It’s more efficient than having a normal barista do it by hand,” said Scelzi. “It knows how long it takes a cup to be filled. It knows where to place it.”
According to Greg Becker, CEO and co-founder of Nourish, the company behind Bbox, Bev and Jarvis are programmed to “learn,” to become even more efficient with more experience.
And because robots don’t have the same costs as their human counterparts, Bbox can pass savings along to customers. A small latte costs $2.75. After tax, the drink comes to just $3.01, which is still less expensive than competitors like Peet’s ($3.65 for a small latte) or Starbucks ($3.45), and significantly cheaper than Highwire, where the same size latte made with the exact same coffee sells for $4 a cup to go, $4.37 in house.
With a heavy emphasis on speed and savings, Bbox may stretch what many customers imagine of a local coffee shop. There’s no piped music, no bus bins, no background din of banter and typing. Bbox is more of a coffee station than a coffee shop — the answer to the question of what a coffee shop might look like if it operated in low-earth orbit.
But coffee is just the beginning.
“This is sort of like our flagship concept,” said Becker. “We looked at the existing restaurant business model and started thinking ‘Is there a way that we can apply different technologies to be able to open up more margin? To be able to source locally? To serve really high-quality things and make it more accessible for everybody?’”
To that end Becker hopes to use Bbox as a way to test different methods and models as part of a larger vision for restaurant automation. It started with a breakfast-oriented menu as it was less operationally complex, and customers on their way to work are on the lookout more for fuel than atmosphere. (Bbox is short for Breakfast box.)
“From the customer standpoint, [breakfast] is the most convenience-based meal of the day and the most habitual,” he said. “We felt that where technology is today, that’s something that we can compete extremely well on and then gradually over time start to look at moving into other types of segments as well.”
Becker has plans beyond breakfast. To mix market metaphors, he wants Bbox to eat everybody’s lunch. Or rather serve everybody’s lunch. And dinner. And in between snacks.
“Now they have names I feel closer to them,” said a UC Berkeley professor as he waited for two robots to prepare his drink.
“We’d like to be able to do burgers and burritos and Chinese food,” he said. “Basically anything that there is like a QSR — a quick serve restaurant — or fast food restaurant that exists today, we would like to be able to do that as well.”
Becker hopes those eventual burrito and burger machines can serve a higher quality product than places like McDonald’s or Burger King, but for the same prices, or lower. Becker views the lower quality of chain fast foods as a symptom of market forces.
“They’re not serving these lower quality foods because they’re evil people,” he said. “They’re doing it because they don’t have the margin to be able to do better ingredient sourcing. Especially if they want to be able to participate in local food ecosystems.”
On his way to work, Zach Pardos, Assistant Professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, stopped for a coffee from Bev and Jarvis.
“Now that they have names I feel closer to them,” said Pardos as he waited for the duo to prepare his drink. The novelty was intriguing, but Pardos stopped by “mostly because I want coffee and this is the closest location,” he said.
Pardos was familiar with other automated services in Berkeley, like Kiwi — “It’s become normative,” he said — but was nonetheless impressed by the model Bbox chose.
Gesturing to the array of dispensers on the far side of the glass, Pardos pointed out every one of the individual machines, other than Bev, could be operated by a human. That was the innovation, Pardos felt. Instead of creating a single, enclosed, one-stop device, Bbox opted for a kind of robot terrarium wherein machines operate machines.
“They let the people who know how to make coffee machines do that really well,” he said, “and then made the thing that can manipulate those devices.” As individual machines wear or as technology advances, the line can be changed without disrupting the system. It’s just one more or one less button for Bev to push.
“You never know what Europe’s gonna give us with coffee innovation,” Pardos joked.
Pressing a few buttons on a tablet at the main desk, I ordered a small latte then watched Bev position the cup under a dual nozzle streaming espresso and steamed milk. In under two minutes the robot finished, moved down the line and handed off the cup to Jarvis, which positioned the cup for retrieval while I tapped out the PIN I’d received on the screen of a small vestibule, which rotated, revealing the drink.
The latte was just the right temperature for immediate consumption. The foam smooth, but unremarkable. As for flavor, it tasted like a blend of Nescafé and shelf-stabilized milk. Convenient, serviceable, like coffee from an office vending machine. Which is, after all, what it is.
Bbox is open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.
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