A cafe just opened up down the street from my job in the Financial District. It’s called Cafe X, but I call it “the Robot Cafe” because it’s run by a damn robot.
In it, there are no baristas smelling of beans and baked goods; no aprons covered in milk; no tables for homeless people to crash at; not even any outlets for college students or freelancers to pitch their MacBook Pros for the next six hours.
The only staff you’ll find behind the bar is a hardworking, sleek robotic arm. His name is Francisco. (Yes, I’m calling it a “he.”) Every day, without fail, Francisco makes the perfect coffee. And by “perfect,” I mean consistent: just the right amount of milk and just the right amount of bean juice.
Starbucks baristas don’t always do that. I should know; four years ago I was that earnest, artificially perky, green apron-wearing college student, writing your Venti Decaf Soy Mocha Frappuccino Extra Whip on a plastic cup and spelling assholes’ names wrong on purpose. Unlike me, Francisco won’t mess up an order while flirting with that personal trainer from Crunch with the chiseled jaw who gets the same mercifully simple Double Americano every weekday. Francisco won’t slide that obviously malnourished Academy of Art student a Turkey & Havarti sandwich out of eyeshot of security cameras, or lagniappe a coconut water and call it reparations. Perhaps most importantly, Francisco won’t throw colleagues under the bus by working less than half a slammed festival shift on his first week, then neatly fold its apron, sneak off for a lunch break and never come back. (THAT WAS A BITCH MOVE, ANTONIO.)
Managers fucking love Francisco. He’s always on time, always follows the recipe. His I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed. Fat white dudes in ties, crunchy white hipster ladies, and my black ass swipe plastic at the iPad kiosks and get codes for our orders texted to our phones.
Then, we watch Francisco work. His bar is trapped in an acrylic fishbowl to keep onlookers from jamming our phones all up in his nonexistent face for the gram. He grabs a cup, pours juuuust the right amount of bean juice and juuuust the right amount of Oatly organic gluten-free whatsit, then sets your cup in queue. Tap your code into a set of slightly smaller iPads and he delivers your coffee on the double. You pick it up, he waves goodbye. So polite, so charming!
The worst part of all this garbage? His coffee is delicious. It’s fucking amazing. Like, he’s hitting all the weirdly specific coffee requirements San Francisco loves. He’s got single-origin coffee beans I’ve never heard of, with “notes of dark chocolate” I can actually taste. Francisco makes it fast, cheap, and tasty.
God fucking dammit, I like this terrible robot.
People in smaller towns may have a vague sense of society slowly turning to shit, but living in San Francisco gives you a front-row seat to the end of the world. That’s what the Robot Cafe means to me. I can envision these popping up all over the city, in place of every Starbucks, Philz, and Peets. In airports, on campuses, in highrise lobbies. Robot cafes could easily wipe the humble barista profession off the map, claiming every salaryman, intern, and code jockey and leaving forlorn indie holdouts to serve the few hipsters and cafe novelists left on the outskirts.
Whenever I was struggling through college or down on my luck, my choices boiled down to three things: payday loans (hell no), trimming weed (it’s legal now!), or slinging caffeine. I’ve dabbled in all three and the lesser of these evils always served me well, but maybe this isn’t the end of barista-ing? The barkers in front of the cafe, the dudes holding admin iPads for troubleshooting Francisco…maybe they’re still baristas at their core, making $11 an hour part-time* in between Calculus classes and ragers at Brent’s frat house across town.
I don’t know, man. These are weird times. If you’re gonna replace the country’s most accessible side gig with robots, give them something new to work with, at least before the robot takeover starts to scale. Don’t make these kids go into Doordash and retail, y’all. Have a heart.
*Editor’s note: For perspective, $11/hour at 20 hours a week in San Francisco will pay for a phone bill, textbooks, a pay period’s worth of instant ramen, and bus fare to and from your parent’s house in the East Bay, where I sure fucking hope you’re living rent-free until you either graduate or die. Whichever comes first.