Sunday, October 20, 2013

Capitalism Will Soon Bring Artisanal Pumpkin Spiced Lattes to the Masses

Quartz this week has a shockingly in-depth look at the current state of automated coffee-brewing machines, and their prospects for disrupting Starbucks-model coffee chains. While it's a fascinating question where the savings might flow if cafes start ditching expensive paid workers in exchange for robot coffee kiosks (bigger stockholder dividends vs. comfier couches and faster wifi), the big social gains from these machines will probably be found in quirkier areas.

Starbucks did humanity a great service by making upscale customizable coffee relatively cheap and convenient. But its reach has always been limited by the demands of running physical locations with upkeep and staffing and supply chain constraints. Recent drops in the cost and size of capsule and automated coffee brewing systems (already common in nice restaurants and hotels) promise to fulfill the dream of making great coffee available everywhere. Soon every small town with insufficient demand to sustain a Starbucks-model cafe will have impressive coffee-brewing capability (in diners, gas stations, etc.).

The most obvious market opportunity for advanced coffee robots is the airline industry. Airplane coffee is notoriously weak and terrible, and efforts to establish brand relationships with major coffee companies are half-measures. The ability to order an extra-shot soy latte while hurdling through space in a metal tube would be an historic accomplishment, and likely a big money-maker. Budget fliers who are hesitant to plump for expensive food and and alcohol might see splurging on nice coffee as more acceptable.

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