Is coffee technology a help or hindrance for baristas and cafe owners?

hand holding milk jug underneath Perfect Moose barista machine
The Coffee Commune

Getting a cup of coffee is one of the most personal experiences a customer can do each day. And often, the smiling face of a barista doing their thing – that expert pour, that finely frothed milk – is almost as good as the black gold itself.

But things have changed for cafe owners. Record low unemployment and recent border closures have made hiring and retaining expert barista talent a nightmare.

Enter technology to fill the void.

But in many cases, cafes have shunned using technology to streamline their barista operations, lest they put off those customers who love to see a face as their coffee is made.

It’s something Brett Bolwell, the chief executive of Barista Technology, knows well.

In a past life, Brett was in the super-automatic coffee machine game. And they were everywhere. But about a decade ago the collective palate of not just Australian coffee lovers, but pretty much all coffee drinkers changed.

Super-automatic was out, barista coffee was in.

“We sold that business – quite a big business with over 100 staff – took a year off and opened a cafe. This was something I always wanted to do,” he says.

“It taught me a lot about the inefficiencies in running a traditional cafe. It was a really good learning curve for me.”

What makes a cafe inefficient?

The combination is simple but deadly to cafes. Brett is the first to embrace the fact that great baristas are vital to businesses. But their duties – precision coffee tamping, expertly frothing milk, nailing the perfect pour – is hampered by the very thing they’re loved for. The customer conversation.

“They’re trying to engage with customers and have a conversation but they’re so busy trying to pump out milk and extract shots, get it tamped right so that your shots aren’t running too fast or too slow,” he says.

“All these things slow down the process and put the barista under more pressure, whereas I think the barista should be able to talk to the customer while coffee is being extracted.”

That’s where technology comes in. And the first thing Brett tackled was tamping.

Tamping technology

“The first product we came across was the Puqpress, the automatic coffee tamper,” he says.

“I bought the first lot of those in and got them into a few high-end specialty cafes in Sydney and Melbourne. Everybody went ‘these are amazing’. We just went from there.

“We consistently sell 500 units per month and we have over 40,000 cafes that have them in Australia, which is insane. More than half of Australian cafes have a Puqpress thanks to us.”

Milk madness

The next thing on Barista Technology’s radar was milk. With an ever-growing array of milks demanded by customers, streamlining is vital. Brett says that’s true whether you’re part of a huge chain or a specialty cafe.

“Milk is problematic as far as time, efficiency and consistency goes,” he says.

“We started playing around with milk delivery systems that texture themselves automatically. We moved into an automatic steaming system called Perfect Moose.

“And the demand has been very broad, from specialty cafes through to quick service restaurants. We’ve now got that in 600 to 700 hundred McDonald’s stores, Hungry Jacks, Coffee Club, Zaraffas, specialty cafes and drive-throughs.”

moose in a forest with Perfect Moose milk system photoshopped into it, and text "your extra pair of barista hands"

Big data isn’t just for bean counters

Technology is all good and well, but what about the numbers driving it? Brett says with technology integrated into the barista’s process, cafe owners should be able to see where things are going right, and where they need improvement.

“We launched a product 18 months ago called Flow, which is a barista telemetry system,” he says.

“It analyses via the data points what the barista is doing: Were they pulling those shots to recipe? If they weren’t pulling to recipe, why not?

“You can drill into all these different metrics to see what’s going on. Is there a maintenance issue, a grinder adjustment issue? That data started to give people instant feedback to fix things.

“McDonald’s are about to roll out their first 300-400 stores in the next few weeks. They’re also in Muffin Break, Coffee Club and more. There’s a lot in the trial phase and rollout plan phase.”

The bottom line benefits

So you’ve got technology integrated into your business. What happens now?

“The stats in this industry, and Phil [Di Bella] will attest to this, it’s got a high churn rate,” Brett says.

“People get in, staffing costs kill them, food costs kill them, rents kill them. We can help in those areas, and get some longevity in the industry. That’s our company vision – to make it sustainable and profitable for cafes to be in this for the long term.”

According to Brett, cafe owners can expect cost efficiencies, sure, but operationally things should become far more harmonious on a number of levels – from HR to customer satisfaction.

“For owners, technology does a number of things,” he says.

“It means that they can utilise any staff member within their business to make coffee, it allows you to have greater utilisation of your existing resources, and it also attracts and keeps staff longer. When you give them the tools to make their job easier, they’re more likely to stay.

“Recruitment and training costs are high. Our goal is to free up the owners’ time by not having to constantly recruit for baristas. Technology gives them the tools they need to make it easier, and hopefully create a longer lasting and longer-serving employee who becomes a key part of your business.

“Make your staff happy, and they’ll make your customers happy. It’s a win-win.”

The Coffee Commune