Imagine a future in which a disembodied metallic arm pulls your espresso shot, steams the milk, pours in just the right amount of vanilla syrup and hands you a perfect latte.
That future is now.
In 2017, Matthew Jones and his wife, Gina, opened Buffawhale Coffee in Black Hawk. But the challenges they faced in operating the business — namely employee turnover and the high rent — led them to sell the coffee shop last November. So Jones turned to an idea that would solve both problems: automation.
Robo Esso is the result of Jones's pursuit of the creation of a robot barista. "I thought, if I don't automate, I'm going to watch my competitors automate — so I started to study and learn," he explains. Jones was already roasting all the coffee beans at Buffawhale but had no experience in robotics.
"Once COVID hit, the wholesale business just stopped immediately, because the hotels and restaurants we worked with closed," Jones explains. "That's when my time went all-in directly on the robot."
What started as a "one-day" idea suddenly had some immediacy as a viable business model. Jones's research led him to the Universal Robot UR5E, a model that's popular on the market because it doesn't require coding to program. Programming the robot was the easy part; the biggest undertaking by far was organizing a coffee counter to be robot-accessible. "Figuring out what surrounds the robot and how to make the robot work with that was the hardest part," Jones points out. "When you're developing it, there's a lot of trial, there's a lot of error, and there's a lot of spilled milk."
Eventually, he figured out how to make the robotic arm grab a cup, start the espresso machine, add flavoring to the cup and pour milk from a beer tap and steam it — all in about ninety seconds. Simpler drinks are made in as fast as thirty seconds. He dubbed the system Robo Esso.
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Although the idea came before the coronavirus pandemic, it's ripe for the times. "Our go-to-market model will be completely automated." the tinkerer notes. "Customers order on their tablet or phone, the robot makes the drink, puts it on a conveyor belt and delivers it to the customer — all contactless." Originally envisioned as an addition to a human barista, Robo Esso now completely eliminates human contact. It can operate 24/7 with about two hours of daily maintenance.
While there are barista robots already operating, the average price is about $250,000, whereas Robo Esso will cost under $100,000 once Jones is ready to sell to other coffee shops. "We're focusing on making it affordable for small businesses so they can use automation, not just large corporations," says Jones. "The idea is that if someone has an espresso machine similar to the machine we're using, we can program the robot to use the machine they already have," adding another element of affordability.
With the robot prototype complete, Jones is finishing work on a kiosk that will house Robo Esso in front of the coffee maker's roasting facility at 741 Corporate Circle in Golden, and just launched an IndieGoGo campaign to help cover the costs of building out the kiosk and redesigning the coffee-ordering app. Up until now, the project has been completely self-funded. His goal is to open in September and then add up to three more Robo Esso locations in metro Denver before franchising.
And then robots will rule — at least in the morning.