If Willy Wonka designed a coffee store, he would likely end up with something like the Roasting Plant Coffee Company in New York. Built around a complex machine that takes automated coffee production to a new level, Roasting Plant functions as much like a small factory as a retail coffee shop. Coffee beans travel overhead in pneumatic tubes, whooshing between storage bins, a roasting station, a grinder and a brewing machine.
Willy might not entirely appreciate the degree of automation. A modern distributed control system runs the entire operation, so Oompa Loompas and human baristas need not apply. In fact, other than loading the machine with raw beans and handing over the finished coffee drink, the system requires no manual labor at all.
Roasting Plant is the brainchild of Mike Caswell, a former engineer for Starbucks, where he worked on supply chain and operational efficiency projects. He describes his time there fondly. “Starbucks really helped me develop my love of coffee,” he says. He had also worked as a manufacturing engineer earlier in his career, including a stint at Digital Equipment Corporation . So he knew about factory automation too, especially its potential to improve product quality.
His concept for an automated coffee store, which has been awarded a patent in Europe and has a U.S. patent pending, doesn’t feature automation for its own sake. It doesn’t even use automation just to keep labor costs low. Instead, the automation serves Caswell’s desire to make better coffee. “I set out to make the freshest, most flavorful cup of coffee available. Automation makes that possible,” he says.
It does so, in large part, by addressing a lack of freshness, which Caswell views as one of the biggest barriers to a truly good cup of coffee. “Arguably freshness is not readily available,” he says, explaining that most retail coffee shops don’t roast their own beans on site. “Some don’t even know when their beans were ground, much less roasted,” he says. Automation allows Roasting Plant to combine the roasting, grinding and brewing at the point of consumption — both physically and temporally.
And it gives consumers more choice than they might otherwise get. Even Roasting Plant’s beta-site store, which is about half the size of a larger shop under construction in another part of New York, offers a choice of seven different beans and the usual lineup of espresso-based and brewed coffee drinks. The automated system also allows customers to blend those beans on the fly. “I don’t know if that makes for a better cup of coffee, but it doesn’t really matter what I think. The customer is completely in control here,” Caswell says.
Automation also brings some much needed consistency to the roasting, brewing and grinding processes in ways that human beings can’t muster day in and day out. “The industry view is that good coffee is an art that requires master roasters and baristas to flip the switch and twirl the knobs, but in reality it’s easy for humans to fat-finger their way to bad coffee,” says Matt Youney of