To Serve Man
Briggo: an Austin company at the crossroads of taste, technology, and social interaction
Picture this scenario: You're deep into a busy day and it's time for a good cup of coffee, made just the way you like it. On your computer or cell phone, you access a website or application, log in, and order your favorite concoction – say, espresso with one pump of vanilla syrup, no sugar, and a splash of soy milk – and pay for it via your stored account. In a nearby kiosk, a robot barista receives your order and prepares your drink to your specifications. You receive a text message or email telling you exactly how many minutes till it's ready. You head for the kiosk, pick up your steaming cup, and get on with your day.
Welcome to the world of Briggo coffee, an Austin start-up whose mission is to add a brand-new dimension to coffee-drinking options away from home. Its goal is to provide fresh, meticulously prepared, individualized coffee to consumers in situations where it hasn't been readily available. Think nonstandard working hours; think hospitals, airports, convention centers, universities, office buildings – places that can't support full coffee shops 24/7 and where the caffeine-deprived have traditionally relied on vending machines.
But wait, isn't this automated approach just a variation of a vending machine? Well, no, not really. Briggo's coffee is prepared by a computer-driven robot instead of a human barista, so yes, it's a machine that delivers coffee. But there the resemblance ends. Beginning with the ingredients and continuing through a careful coffee-making process, the focus on quality and attention to detail produces individually prepared cups that are aromatic, flavorful, and rich, in no way resembling the dubious brown liquid dispensed from vending machines.
Briggo purchases organic, Fair Trade coffee beans from the Cafe Femenino Coffee Project that represents a collective of women growers in Peru; the green coffee beans are roasted in Austin by Third Coast Coffee Roasting Company. The 1883 de Philibert Routin syrups are manufactured in France, the chai is organic, and the coffee cups and lids are compostable.
As for the process, the robot is programmed to mimic the actions of a human barista. When a Briggo customer orders a coffee drink (and not before), the beans are measured to a tenth of a gram and ground in a Swiss burr grinder that adjusts appropriately for the drink ordered. Coffee for espresso is tamped and sealed in a chamber, and 200-degree water is introduced at nine bars of pressure (as a barista does). A brewed coffee takes 15-30 seconds to make; espresso drinks, from 1½ to 2½ minutes. After each drink is prepared, the system self-cleans, ready for the next shot.
"Our purpose is to tightly control the entire process to the highest standards," says Briggo founder Charles Studor. "We're after precision, repeatability, consistency, as well as coffee quality. Customers can be confident that when they enter their order they'll get exactly the same result as the last time they ordered it. Robots never have an off day."
Studor, the company's chief technology officer, comes from a 30-year background in the semiconductor industry. His inspiration for the integrated system evolved from converging ideas and interests. While doing nonprofit work in Honduras, he fell in love with the consistently delicious and creamy coffee available there. He observed growing trends in the U.S. of self-service applications such as DVD-rental kiosks. And he was fascinated by the exploding phenomenon of social networking via computers and cell phones. Combining these elements, he developed a prototype in his garage for a system that ultimately brought together good coffee, robotics, cloud technology, and social-media interaction. But with a nod to legacy, Studor says, "The name Briggo is in honor of my grandfather's company, the Briggs Machine Tool Company of Syracuse, New York."
Briggo's leadership team includes CEO Kevin Nater, a former CEO of Dell Financial Services, and Chief Information Officer John Craparo, retired from General Electric, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard. Their collective business and high-tech skills combine with the professional coffee expertise of barista/coffee consultant Patrick Pierce, previously with Austin's acclaimed Caffé Medici.
After three years in development, Briggo's first coffee kiosk was installed last November inside UT's Flawn Academic Center (previously the Undergraduate Library). "About 10,000 students and employees a day pass through the building," says Nater. "It seemed like a good spot for us to get started." The company plans several Austin-area installations in 2012.
The system is housed in a giant enclosed box with two service hatches, a computer touch screen, and a credit-card swipe. (Customers can order coffee on the spot via the same user interface displayed on the website and the phone app.) Orders in the queue (placed both remotely and on-site) are displayed by user name on a large screen on the kiosk's facade; each shows the number of minutes till the order is ready.
From behind the facade, you can hear the familiar sounds of beans grinding and steam hissing as the robot processes orders. It's easy to imagine a humanoid C-3PO figure furiously cranking out espressos, but in actuality, the robot is a complex interacting mechanical system controlled by sophisticated computer algorithms. Behind the streamlined user interface, the Briggo apparatus is clearly descended from such implements as were made by the Briggs Machine Tool Company – updated by the wonders of modern technology.
Lest you're disconcerted by the idea of totally automated coffee production, there's a cheerful human attendant present to explain the installation, answer questions, and walk newcomers through the process if needed. Also, as Pierce explains, "While we could fine-tune the coffee-making process from bean to cup, there was no way we could replicate customers interacting with the system through social media. So a development team member is on-site full-time for now, observing and learning from the customers, and tweaking things as needed."
There will always be a human presence to every Briggo installation; someone's got to periodically replenish the beans and other ingredients. And not just to keep things running, but also because part of the coffee-drinking experience is social, as the company well knows. "We're very interested in the human interaction aspect," says Studor, "both online and around the kiosk." At the Flawn Center, adjacent couches and tables encourage convivial coffee consumption.
So what do the customers think of Briggo so far? Christy, who preferred not to give her surname, is a UT employee working upstairs. "I watched the demo when they first installed the kiosk, and I was hooked immediately," she says. "I buy coffee here every day. I order on my cell phone, and by the time I hit the stairs, I get a text saying my drink is ready. I don't have to leave the building for a decent coffee; that's been great in the cold and rainy weather."
It's a fact that coffee drinkers have decided opinions and habits developed through a daily relationship with their coffee; they know how they like it, and they want it to be made that way. Customer Glenn Dembowski, a UT IT employee, visits the Briggo kiosk at least once a day. "The coffee is good," he says. "It's important to me that they use quality beans and that the system remembers my preferences. And it's kind of cool being involved as the operation gets started. It's a local company; it's high-tech; they use Fair Trade coffee; cups are compostable; I like the people – it's what Austin is all about."
Last fall, a public relations strategy class, taught by PR professionals Jeff Hunt and Paul Walker in the UT School of Communications, used Briggo as a real-world case study for marketing and research and analysis. When the team presented its recommendations to Briggo, findings showed that the social experience is important to their customers. The company was impressed enough to engage two of the students as spring semester interns who, according to Nater, "will be implementing several of the recommendations .... This is very exciting for Briggo and will allow us to better understand the university environment and connect with the students, faculty, and staff." As Hunt, the class' professor, says, "Never underestimate the power of students in this age of social media."
So yeah, the barista may be a robot, but it seems the optimal coffee experience still turns on two critical factors: consistent, delicious, and customizable coffee in conjunction with social interaction, be it face-to-face or via a mobile platform. As some things change, some just don't.
For information about Briggo, to create an account, or to access the ordering system, go to the company's website at www.briggo.com.