The author was a senior executive of a large tech-enabled coffee startup in China, who previously wrote about China’s non-existent ‘trillion dollar’ coffee market on TLD. He prefers to be anonymous but accepts feedback through the TLD team (hello@mworks.asia). 

A few friends recently asked me about some robotic barista they had spotted in Singapore – “will it work”?. A fancy robotic arm makes you coffee behind a glass screen – for, if I remember correctly, S$4 (US$3) per cup of Americano.

Fancy

On weekends, you often see a lot of people gathering in front of the booth, watching, some with coffee cups in their hands.

I am highly sceptical that this will work in the commercial sense. Coffee machines have been around for a long time, and you have sophisticated machines (without robotic arms) that can make you pretty good Cappucino or even Chocolat Viennois.

Search for “automatic coffee vending machine” and this is the 1st screen

In the case of Singapore, where I had a bit of experience negotiating rent with buildings/malls and also building payment into automated vending machines, you can probably sell your coffee at $$2 a cup to the office crowd, and hope for profitability.

The problem is, the majority of the consumers are so accustomed to the (very tasty) varieties of local coffee (kopi) at a lower price point, or the likes of Starbucks where you can get a kick of caffeine (Americano) at lower than $5.

So robotic baristas are at an awkward position – its coffee is not necessarily as good as Starbucks, does not come with a space to sit, and NOT EVEN drastically cheaper. Maintaining such systems is not cheap – my friend observed one of the outlets in Singapore and you almost always need staff on site – so there is no cost advantage over either Starbucks or kopi stalls.

Hard to be fully automated

It will, most likely, end up like many of the fancy coffee vending machines we had experienced in China. Lots of attention in the first couple of months, but sales will plummet as soon as this is no longer new to the people.

Of course, I can’t speak for the operators – maybe they are doing it not for commercial viability, but for PR and publicity?

 

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