man vs. machine
5:01 am
Mon December 2, 2013

Robot Baristas? Here's Starbucks CEO Schultz's Take

The coffee world has been abuzz lately with news of barista robots—machines that can custom-make a cappuccino or chai latte. Naturally, the question becomes whether the world’s largest coffee chain, Seattle-based Starbucks, would replace humans with automation. 

In a world where robots build cars, fulfill orders in Amazon warehouses and paint the wings on Boeing’s 777 jet, making a latte by machine isn’t that much of a leap.

This past summer, a company in Austin, Texas introduced what it calls the Briggo Coffee Haus, a kiosk that makes mochas, spice lattes and Americanos with no humans involved. And you can order ahead of time with your smartphone.

But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says his 200,000 store employees need not worry.

"The strength of what we do every single day at Starbucks, and the fact that we’ve been able to build a global business is based on the experience that we create in our stores, which is based on human behavior and human experience," Schultz said during a recent interview. "I cannot envision a time at Starbucks where we would have machines of any kind that would replace the people who are engaging with our customers."

Perhaps that isn’t so surprising. Starbucks started a program two years ago to collect donations to spur small business hiring in the wake of the recession.

But Stephens Research analyst Will Slabaugh says keeping people behind the counter is more than altruism; it makes good business sense for Starbucks. He says having friendly faces greeting customers is part of the company’s image.

"If it were to just be a completely touch-less interaction, done by a machine, per se, where you never actually have that face-to-face interaction, I think that would actually be a negative for the brand and hurt sales," Slabaugh said. 

That’s not to say Starbucks doesn’t experiment. The company has rolled out Seattle’s Best Coffee vending machines in supermarkets and at Walmart stores. And a spokeswoman says Starbucks is working on a system for taking advance orders so people don’t have to wait while their drinks are made. But she says the comis pany still evaluating whether the move makes sense; Starbucks doesn’t want to detract from the human experience.