One thing I do appreciate about being a relative “underling” in academic circles still, is that my supervisors tend to fob things off on to me. I presented at a conference about Fairtrade and upset a lot of people because one supervisor didn’t have time to go. I wrote a magazine article on coffee waste because the other supervisor couldn’t be bothered. And this week, one of the examiners from my viva passed on an invitation to go on an ‘expert panel’ hosted by an “innovation consultancy” for an unnamed “major coffee company.” This was the first time I’ve ever done this sort of thing and it was a truly bizarre experience.
As far as I could tell from the enigmatic and brief email invitatiion, I had to go to London Bridge, all expenses covered, be given “drinks and canapes” and be paid to talk “about coffee vending” for two hours. So I did. I made it down there, got on the right tube line but promptly walked the wrong way out of Borough tube station and got a bit lost, finally presented myself at the reception of this huge, posh looking office/studio building, where I was wordlessly handed a white envelope with £150 in cash in it!! I could get used to this!!
I actually really enjoyed the evening, and not just because of the Free Wine and Free Sushi. (I noted they didn’t even attempt to serve us coffee!). I was definitely the Token Academic, but the rest were all from different backgrounds – advertising and marketing people, restauranters, a nutritionist, a trade journal editor and a coffee historian. Given the location and the words “Future Panel” and “innovation consultancy” on the invite, I was fully prepared for an evening of playing Bullshit Bingo. However, I needn’t have feared! It was all very interesting and most of the other panelists were refreshingly cynical, especially for advertising folks.
I have a feeling I talked too much. I hope I didn’t make a giant tit of myself. I did get very, very involved.This tends to happen when I am Interested in something. I hope they realised this.
The discussion was mainly about the Future of Coffee Vending Machines – specifically the self-service ones, with no barista involved like you get at motorway service stations. The “major coffee company” who commissioned this remains nameless but I’m sure informed readers can make a good guess! Although there were at least three unashamed Nespresso machine fans, the overriding impression we had about vending machines was that they were notoriously shit. Not even just the taste of the low quality, cheap coffee that is usually found in them, but the mistrust that they will just swallow your money or give you chicken soup by accident or something. No one thought anyone in this country would be willing to spend serious money in vending machines.This is true. There are lots of different coffee markets to my mind: there are ‘gourmet’ coffee snobs like me who want the best quality and want to see it handmade. People who are willing to pay for, and wait for, espresso. Then there are people who work out of coffee shops who come in for the free wifi and to get out of the house and don’t really care about what they’re drinking. Then there is the social element – friends meeting somewhere that has fewer negative social connotations than a pub or is more family-orientated for example. There are people who have no choice – those dying for “refreshment” whilst stuck on trains or the motorways and are forced to pay for whatever crap is available in a very restricted environment. Finally there are caffeine addicts who just want a hot, wet fix for minimal cost. At the moment, vending machines only cater for the last two groups. But we were asked to think about how they could be developed to access the other sorts of markets.
By this point I had got talking to the guy next to me, a historian and magazine editor from California with a passion for coffee who has spent years writing a book on the history of coffee. VERY interesting guy. We were asked to pair up and try to design The Coffee Vending Machine of the Future! Perhaps inevitably, we got sidetracked talking about the history of coffee houses…. To this end, my “made up off the top of my head” vending machine was STEAMPUNK! Only one person in the room knew what I meant by steampunk, and I am eternally grateful to him. Syphon-style coffee makers (like french presses, but sucking water up through the coffee rather than squashing it down) lend themselves to the imagined Victoriana style – all steaming glass tubes, hissing noises and brass plates. Big heavy machines. Mine would be a cylindrical tank with several glass syphons arranged around it, allowing several high quality single origin coffees to be served simultaneously but without the faffing about, waiting time or expensive of espresso. Brass robot arms would then add milk, sugar, cream, flavourings etc. The customer would pull a large lever to start the thing, and set a dial to Weak or Strong. The whole contraption would be encased in a glass booth, with a canopy over it and a small ledge all round it for people to lean on to drink their coffee. It could be a centre piece to any service station, or a talking point in an office block, fulfilling the same role as the water dispenser conversation point does now. Better still, the weirdness and clockwork/steam intricacy of the machine itself would provide the spectacle needed so that people part with quite a lot of money for the coffee it made. You would be paying for the thrill of seeing it in action as well as for the convenience of not having to make coffee yourself. However, to avoid queues and to embrace modern technology, the machine would work via a barcode scanner. A complimentry phone app would allow you to design your favourite coffee – say “Strong, Costa Rican, no milk, two sugars, 12oz cup” which would then be represented as a barcode on your phone. You’d then find the machine, wave your phone at it, pull the lever, and your personalised, favourite coffee would be dispensed from the test-tube syphons by the robot arms and payment would be taken from your phone bill. Personally, I think this is the future.
More sensible ideas included using face recognition software to personalise your coffee (ie: if it measured large bags under your eyes then it would automatically give you extra caffeine!). Others wanted a machine that took payment only after it made the drink so you never lost money if the machine broke down and so on. However, the main thing to come out of the discussion was that if the company wants people to pay good money for vending machine coffee, the vending machine absolutely cannot look like or feel like a conventional vending machine. They just have too many negative connotations!
I really hope the ‘major coffee company’ take in board all our views, even if we/I did get a little sidetracked and carried away! I was thanked profusely for my contributions but I am never any good at telling whether people are just humouring me or not. But, if a major coffee brand introduces a range of huge brass steampunk contraptions into your office, please let me know!!
Someone has already come up with a similar machine!! I mean like this, but with at least 5 syphons and more arms.