A robot whipping up a cuppa for you? Latest trend in Shanghai stirs up debate on automation

A robotic arm serving a cup of coffee to a customer at Ratio, a new pop-up store at the K11 Art Mall in downtown Shanghai.
A robotic arm serving a cup of coffee to a customer at Ratio, a new pop-up store at the K11 Art Mall in downtown Shanghai.PHOTO: CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

SHANGHAI (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Located in the basement of the K11 Art Mall in downtown Shanghai is Ratio, a new pop-up store that operates as a cafe by day and cocktail bar by night.

Automation is the name of the game here. For instance, customers gain access to a digital menu after scanning QR codes found on the tables. Apart from a comprehensive selection of drinks, they can also customise their orders.

A regular latte at Ratio costs 28 yuan (S$5.65). Those who prefer a stronger cup of coffee can opt for a double or triple shot for just one yuan more - it is a practice that most coffee shops in Shanghai do not adopt.

"We see ourselves as the 'Tesla of Retail' - five-star service at three-star prices," Mr Gavin Pathross, the founder of Ratio, said in a reference to the multinational automaker in the United States.

In terms of cocktails, customers can also choose how many shots of alcohol they want in their drinks and the specific combination of liquors. The starting price for a customised cocktail is about 60 yuan, cheaper than that for similar drinks at high-end bars in the city.

But Ratio's crowning glory is something far more tangible. It is also what makes this place the first of its kind in China.

Here, customers will not find baristas or mixologists preparing the drinks. A solitary Italian-made robotic arm does the job, spinning around its enclosure where different cups, espresso machines and liquors are located within its perfectly tuned grasp.

Meanwhile, Ratio's employees, all of whom are trained mixologists or baristas, perform a similar role to sommeliers, making recommendations to customers.

Most customers are fascinated as they watch the US$30,000 (S$41,040) robot go about performing its tasks with precision. But while the guile of the robotic arm has left them mesmerised, it has also raised questions about the growing prevalence of automation in the workplace and how it will affect people.

In an interview with CNBC last year, Yum Brands chief executive Greg Creed was quoted as saying that machines could replace people in the food and beverage sector by the mid-2020s.

Much of Yum's business in Shanghai has already embraced automation. At Shanghai Pudong International Airport, KFC customers place their orders at an automated kiosk. At Pizza Hut, a robot greets customers at the door.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, up to 800 million people worldwide could be displaced by automation by 2030.

But Mr Pathross insists that his new business venture is not about diminishing the relevance of humans in the workforce.

"What we have here is a collaborative effort. The robots handle about 80 per cent of the work. The last 20 per cent, which involves tasks such as garnishing and adding ice, is performed by humans. The garnishing process is absolutely important because it affects perceived value," said the 39-year-old, who used to be chief digital officer with Yum Brands.

"This is not about replacing humans with machines to save money. We think it's a more efficient way of doing cocktails and coffee. It frees humans up from menial tasks and allows them to focus on other areas such as creating recipes. In fact, we can now afford to pay our staff more because we require less manpower in other areas. My savings are also reinvested into obtaining quality ingredients."

Things also move more quickly at Ratio. The robot can make two cups of latte within 90 seconds. A seasoned barista would need at least a minute to make just one cup.

However, aficionados would be quick to point out that this is because the coffee at Ratio comes straight from a fully automatic espresso machine. In contrast, baristas go through a series of tasks, such as dosing the ground coffee into the portafilter, tamping to remove air pockets and ensuring the coffee is completely level, before pulling the shot.

The key difference between the fully automated and manual processes is the quality and flavour of the product, according to Mr Nils Weisensee.

"I've never had good coffee from an automatic espresso vending machine," said Mr Weisensee, the founder of speciality coffee outlet Cafe del Volcan. "I think that when it comes to perfecting the flavour of coffee, it's hard for a machine to be better than humans."

He said that during the process of making drip coffee, the bloom - the reaction between the coffee grounds and hot water - is different each time and baristas need to react accordingly to ensure that the best flavour is produced.

In addition, the way a barista presses and extracts a shot of espresso depends on air pressure, temperature and humidity, all of which vary during the day. An experienced barista would also be able to improve the flavour by looking at the colour and texture of the crema, or froth, something that machines are not able to do.

"There is no doubt that technology is important in the process of coffee making. Technology has allowed us to create sophisticated thermometers, weighing scales and water sensors that are crucial to coffee making. But I believe that a human still has to be at the core of the production process," Mr Weisensee said.

More pertinently, the coffee experience is determined not just by good flavour, but by the human element, Mr Weisensee said.

He describes how the cafe is a community of like-minded people who love a good cup of coffee, and that the barista is the lynchpin of this community.

"When we think about the future, we always think about what technology can do. But we often don't ask if these changes are even what we really want in life," Mr Weisensee said.

"Just because a piece of tech is available doesn't mean we actually want to use it. Is the new technology addressing a problem, or is it taking away something people actually appreciate? There's a huge difference."

Mr Yao Lu, founder of The Union Trading Company, one of the top cocktail bars in Shanghai, said that while using robots can make sense from a purely functional standpoint, such use of technology is the antithesis of hospitality.

"This place (Ratio) has got its concept of hospitality wrong. The beauty of a bar is in the human touch. It is about that handshake or hug you get from the bartenders. It's about having them coming round the corner to do shots with you. It is these little touches that create a truly unique drinking experience," he said.

"It's not so much about the precision of the drinks. Yes, humans are more prone to making errors compared to machines, but that is never the point of going to a bar. People go to bars because they want to walk out the place happier than when they came in."

Mr Chen Jingya, a mixologist at the cocktail bar Flask, said it is naive to think of bartenders as nothing more than "cocktail-making machines".

"We don't just stand around and make cocktails. We're in the hospitality business - it's all about connecting with people," he said.

"One of the draws of going to a bar is watching the mixologists in action. It's part of the experience, in addition to interacting with friends, fellow customers and bartenders. You can't possibly chat with a robot."

These opinions from industry players mirror the findings by scientists that humans are social creatures who have an innate desire to connect with others. But could customers one day decide that they simply want to interact with their friends instead of with baristas or bartenders? Wouldn't this spell the death of these professions?

Ms Lucky Huang, a mixologist at the newly opened Alcocase bar on Changle Road in Shanghai, offered an intriguing insight into the human mind that suggests why such professionals will never become irrelevant - humans like to confide in strangers.

"I've realised that the bar counter is more than just a piece of furniture upon which you pour and serve cocktails. It is also a special, safe space for some customers," she said.

"You'd be surprised at how some people would rather speak with a stranger, like a bartender, than with their closest pals when it comes to certain matters."

Scientific studies have proven this to be the case. In a survey conducted by Harvard sociologist Mario Luis Small, 45 per cent of participants were found to have confided in people they did not consider to be close friends or family members. Instead, many of these confidants were people such as hairdressers, bartenders and gym trainers.

Dr Small explained in the Harvard Magazine that this is because some people might want to avoid judgment from a close friend about a contentious issue, worry the other party, or have his problems shared with others through the grapevine.

Mr Pathross had expected to receive such a response from people in coffee and cocktail circles. But he maintains his stance that Ratio is not out to undermine craftsmanship or be a threat to such businesses.

"I'd like to think of Ratio as a partner to coffee places and cocktail bars. What we want to do here is let people explore tastes, which would, in turn, help them learn more about these beverages," he said, before pointing out that market research had shown that Chinese consumers are generally unaccustomed to the flavours of popular cocktails.

"The negroni is one of the best-loved drinks in the world. But most Chinese consumers cannot accept the taste. It's too bitter for their liking," he added. "The cocktails we offer here at Ratio are more suited to their palate, and it also helps to ease them into trying more robust flavours in the future."

The first Ratio outlet will open at the Raffles City shopping centre this month, and more store openings are planned. Mr Pathross said technology allows him to expand more quickly than traditional establishments.

For instance, he can roll out a new outlet in a shorter time because the robot is already programmed with all the recipes, removing the need to train new bartenders.

"Can a robot be a master mixologist? Probably not. But our robot can definitely prepare a decent drink. And I'm also very confident that the robot can get the recipe right all the time," he said.

Mr Pathross said he is also exploring ventures that involve using robots to cook. He refers to Spyce, the world's first restaurant to prepare complex meals using robots, as an example of how the future of the food industry will change in the coming years.

"Acceptance of robots will eventually happen when you bring experienced professionals into the mix who can help create great recipes," said Mr Pathross, referring to the appointment of Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud as Spyce's culinary director.

Mr Christopher Udemans, a writer at technology blog Technode who attended the soft launch of Ratio, said he expects such "hybrid" cafes and bars to become more common. But he also stressed the importance of the human element.

"With rising rates of automation, it would make sense to delegate repetitive tasks to robots. However, I hope that complete automation in such an environment doesn't arrive," he said.

"It's great being able to go into a bar and have a chat with the bartender, even if they are just there for interacting with customers and not making drinks."

Mr Bheki Mhlanga, a Ratio customer, said that such a concept could be a big hit in Shanghai, noting that trends take off very quickly in the city. He also thinks that some bartenders could lose their jobs to machines.

"The top bartenders would probably be safe. But those who aren't as highly skilled could eventually be replaced by machines. The cocktail I had at Ratio was actually pretty good. I wouldn't say it's top notch, but it's comparable to what you'd get at a mid-range bar in Shanghai," he said.

"Maybe this automation drive could even push bartenders to constantly improve their skills in order to stay relevant."

But like Mr Udemans, Mr Mhlanga is not too keen about total automation.

"Is a fully automated bar possible? Yes. Is it needed? Maybe not," he said. "A bar is a social venue, not a factory."