Children wave back at the robot barista as their drink is delivered at Cafe X robotic coffee bar at the Metreon on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Robot wars: Coffee-making companies compete for SFO contract

There’s a robot war brewing at the San Francisco International Airport.

But no, these robots don’t shoot lasers or slice each other with buzzsaws.

They sling coffee.

A proposed 12-month trial of a Texas-built robotic coffee machine at SFO stalled after a competing, San Francisco-based robotic coffee company, Cafe X, protested at an Airport Commission meeting Nov. 6.

SFO staff hoped to run the 12-month trial for the Texas-based Briggo “Coffee Haus” robotic coffee machines to test out how a robot coffee machine would be received in the airport, for $1,000 a month rent per location, up to three locations, with an alternative to pay fifteen percent of gross revenue. Nanette Hendrickson, assistant director for revenue development and management at SFO, told the airport commission staff the machines would offer passengers a way to get their caffeine fix 24/7, even after airport cafes close.

“This would especially be helpful to passengers on late or delayed flights,” Hendrickson said.

So how is a robotic coffee maker different than a coffee vending machine? A bevy of news outlets describe the robot coffee machines as able to carry out more complicated drink making. Cafe X kiosks feature windows to watch the robot arms carry out the drink-making feats. Briggo’s “Coffee Haus” machines can make 100 drinks per hour, according to an SFO staff report.

Commissioners were initially ecstatic. Commissioner Linda Crayton told Hendrickson, “I don’t have a question. I love it.”

But Cynthia Yeung, chief operating officer of Cafe X, cried foul.

“My question to commissioners is this: We’re striving to be a very responsible employer in San Francisco to bring trade jobs back to this city,” Yeung said. “Why with so little transparency was this trial program awarded to a Texas-based company?”

Cafe X has three locations in downtown San Francisco, including one at the Metreon on Mission Street, and works with “local roasters” “right here in San Francisco,” Yeung argued, with 26 employees in The City. SFO should consider boosting local employers before a Texas-based company, she argued.

Hendrickson, the SFO assistant director for revenue, told the commission the matter went for commission approval without first setting out a competitive process, but that staff members did “test” the Cafe X experience. She said her staff preferred Briggo’s machines because they are “battle tested” in other busy airports already. A competitive process allowing multiple companies to bid on an SFO contract was slated for after the trial period, according to an SFO staff report.

After the complaint, commissioner Crayton was far less enthusiastic.

“I’m a bit distressed,” she told staff. “It would’ve been great to have a comparison and for this person to have an opportunity.”

Commissioner Elanor Johns said SFO has “always been locally based” rather “than people out of the area and out of state.”

Ultimately, the commission decided to delay the approval of coffee-serving robots for an unknown future date, pending more exploration of Cafe X’s services. A Cafe X spokesperson confirmed Wednesday they are in ongoing talks with SFO.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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