Semi-automation is trending, but few cafe operators are willing to take the full plunge. Why the resistance?

Picture the following scenario. It’s 2025, and things at the local cafe don’t look exactly as they once did. There is still the chic fit-out, bustling atmosphere, and unmistakable smell of fresh espresso wafting out the door. Relaxing tunes are playing while Saturday morning cafe-goers catch up over coffee and brunch. Every now and then the kitchen bell chimes as waitstaff tend to a steady stream of breakfast orders. But something’s changed.

As you walk up to the coffee bar to order a takeaway, you notice the area seems more spacious. So much in fact, you really take notice of the person who is making your coffee – not just the manager or the staff member taking payment. Their face is not concealed behind the bulky façade of a conventional coffee machine (and all its add-ons). The machine is also quieter – just the comforting low hum of beans grinding, and milk dispensing. You can’t help but strike up a chat with the barista, who greets you warmly and doesn’t seem as frantic as he would normally be on a Saturday morning.

He tells you about the different coffee options, their source climates, and various other facts – even offers you a sample taste. Then, a few brief moments later, he hands you your coffee, you happily hand him your money, and you walk away with a strange mix of satisfaction and curiosity. Oh – and the coffee is really good, with perfect temperature and texture.

Now come back to reality. Imagine a cafe you regularly visit – what’s the scene like? Busy? Noisy? Can you see the baristas? How much time do they spend talking to you? When you walk away, coffee in hand, does it feel worth every dollar you spent on it? Do you know which type of coffee you’re drinking? Probably not.

One toe in and one toe out of the automation game 

There’s a strange thing happening in Australia’s cafe scene right now. Many cafes are using a variety of separate, automated pieces of equipment in their workstations. But very few are willing to combine these into one single machine – the kind our fictional barista in the above scenario was using. Operators seem wary to fully automate their coffee service workflow despite a major trend towards semi-automation.

If fully-automated machines already on the market produce equally if not more consistent coffee, and semi-automation is expensive (with individual pieces such as tamping devices and automatic milk dispensers costing up to $10,000 a piece), businesses clearly see value in retaining the look and feel of a traditional manually operated machines. But what is this based on and why the resistance to full automation?

Fear of being the first

There was a time when automatic tamping wasn’t common, and now it is. All it took was a few leading cafes to say ‘this is okay, we are still bona fide baristas who know our coffee. So, what’s stopping cafes from setting the next precedent? The resistance probably comes down to a fear of judgement and being cautious of wanting to ‘go first’. If a handful of leading operators take the plunge, it is easy to imagine a day when it will seem like common sense to use a single machine that automates the whole process and provides quality data so you can continually refine it. But there are also concerns the customer won’t like it…   

Assuming customer values 

You know your business and customer better than anyone, but it is important to at least ask the question rather than assume. Do your customers buy your coffee because it’s high quality and the service is great? Or do they buy it because it was served up using various pieces of equipment and processes? When considering what level of automation works for your business, it’s important to be interested in the customer’s take on the matter.  What is a great customer service and coffee experience, in their mind? If it involves learning about coffee and having friendly banter with staff, what is the best setup to support this?

Protecting tradition

There is a perception that full automation is somewhat clinical compared to the aesthetic appeal, bustle and effort of (partly) manual operation. People also fear that it might take away from the skill of the barista and a sense of tradition.  But just as automation in other industries has freed up those skilled in that industry to refine their skills and offer more value, could automated coffee machines enable baristas to hone in on that coffee cup with more precision, and really use their knowledge to share it with the customer and give them an experience they’ll love? Human interaction has always been at the heart of coffee culture, so this scenario wouldn’t necessarily be a departure from tradition. Could it even help retain it? These are some questions we’ve been asking and want to drive conversation about. It’s only a matter of time before the elephant in the room – one of a range of fully-automated coffee machine brands on the market – turns up at the local cafe. So why not talk about the pros and cons now?