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A Robot Barista in SF Charges Customer for Its Healthcare

Isn't the appeal of automation not having to pay for your employee's medical expenses?

Alex Swerdloff

Photo courtesy of Cafe X

Earlier this year, we told you about Cafe X, a San Francisco-based coffee kiosk operated by the world's first robot barista. Cafe X's kiosk is "manned" by a modified Mitsubishi industrial arm nicknamed Gordon that can churn out espressos, cappuccinos, and a few other coffee options.

Yesterday, a local SF blogger who goes by the moniker Mr. Eric Sir wrote a blog post complaining that the robot barista charged him for its health care. The blogger had ordered an espresso macchiato with organic milk, and received a bill for $3.50 for the beverage plus 30 cents in sales tax.

screen grab via mrericsir.com

The blogger then noticed a 14-cent health care surcharge.

Nearly a decade ago, San Francisco passed a law that requires restaurants to provide healthcare for their employees. Some San Francisco businesses elected to impose a surcharge on bills to cover the expense of complying with the so-called Health Care Security Ordinance. Rather than raising prices, the surcharge allows restaurants to pass on the surcharge to customers who see it itemized on their bills. The surcharge is neither required—nor is it prohibited.

But should it apply to robots?

That would be a hard argument to make. Mr. Eric Sir certainly doesn't think so. "I, for one, welcome our new robot food service overlords," he said. "What I'm not fine with, however, are spurious surcharges."

READ MORE: Inside Cafe X, Home of the World's First Robot Barista

Is there a human—who needs health care—behind the machine? Perhaps. Still, Mr. Eric Sir wrote, "Human employees maintain this robot. But if you think about it, Cafe X is nothing more than a fanciful vending machine."

Reached for comment, Cafe X CEO and founder Henry Hu told us, "It's actually pretty straightforward. Cafe X is not a vending machine. We are a cafe that utilizes a piece of automated equipment (that we created) to provide customers with a faster and more consistent experience for locally roasted specialty coffee. We staff our cafes with lovely product specialists who take care of customers, work with our roasters to maintain coffee quality, and take care of the automated equipment."

Will Mr. Eric Sir and the rest of the Bay Area accept Cafe X's stance on the surcharge? We'll just have to wait and see.