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I, Sawyer

From the March 2019 issue.

Henn na Café in Tokyo takes the principles of automatic coffee making to the next level, almost operating without any human staff.

Sawyer is the sole employee of Henn na Café in Tokyo, Japan. Working eight hours a day – nine on weekends – Sawyer prepares every coffee order at the Shibuya Modi department store venue, be it espresso or filter, with a consistency few other baristas could match. Not only does Sawyer do it alone, Sawyer does it with one arm too. Sawyer is a robot.

Henn na Café, meaning “strange” or “changed” in Japanese, opened in February 2018 and operates entirely automatically.

There is no human barista. Sawyer serves freshly brewed filter and espresso coffee using Melitta equipment. Japan-based travel agency H.I.S. opened Henn na Café following the success of its 12 Henn na Hotels, which also operate without human staff. Instead, robot concierges, and in some cases automated dinosaurs, greet and attend to guests.

Jiro Oma, Marketing Manager at Melitta Japan, says Henn na Café is the result of a collaboration between Melitta, H.I.S. and Sawyer’s developer, American robot manufacturer Rethink Robotics.

Melitta became involved in the project when H.I.S. reached out regarding an automated filter coffee machine. Melitta provided the Poursteady machine, which is currently used by Sawyer at the café. The pour over device has five individual filter stations that allow coffee recipes to be adjusted one by one.

“It only requires the press of a button. The machine is so simple a robot can operate it,” Jiro says.

“We also proposed to H.I.S. how the robot could grind the coffee, how it should be brewed, and which fully automatic espresso machine to use.”

Melitta suggested its XT4 model be installed due to its simple design and usability. The company also assisted with the development of the venue.

“Melitta helped H.I.S. with the coffee shop layout, from where Sawyer should grind the coffee beans to the placement of the fully automatic and pour over machines,” Jiro says.

At Henn na Café, guests select and pay for the drink they want at a terminal, then receive a coupon with a QR code. They scan this receipt at the counter and Sawyer starts to prepare their coffee.

When customers order drip coffee, Sawyer begins by placing the cup in the automatic pour over station. It then grinds the coffee and pours the grounds into the cone filter. The filled filter is placed back into the station, and the brewing process starts.

At the filter station, hot water runs through the ground coffee and filters into the cup. Finally, Sawyer serves the beverage at the counter before cleaning the filter for its next use.

“When a human prepares pour over coffee, the barista makes their best effort to brew the coffee consistent in quality and taste, but it is very difficult. An automatic machine is a solution to make it simple, stable, and offer good coffee quality consistently,” Jiro says.

When an espresso-based beverage is selected, Sawyer places the cup under the Melitta Cafina XT4’s outlet, presses the button for the chosen drink, and serves the filled cup. The fully automatic Melitta coffee machine handles the grinding, brewing, milk frothing, and mixing processes.

Jiro says the café has seen a good response, with consumers still very interested in the café more than a year after it opened.

“It is a kind of surprise having no staff at the café, and Sawyer and the pour over machine offer great appeal to customers coming to the coffee shop,” he says.

Though customers are reportedly satisfied with the quality of Sawyer’s coffees, some say its latte art leaves something to be desired.

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