Beijing: Located in the basement of the K11 Art Mall in downtown Shanghai is Ratio, a new pop-up store that operates as a cafe by day and cocktail bar by night.

Automation is the name of the game here. For instance, customers gain access to a digital menu after scanning QR codes found on the tables.

Apart from a comprehensive selection of drinks, they can also customise their orders.

A regular latte at Ratio costs 28 yuan (RM17).

Those who prefer a stronger cup of coffee can opt for a double or triple shot for just one yuan (RM0.60) more.

It is a practice that most coffee shops in Shanghai do not adopt.

“We see ourselves as the ‘Tesla of Retail’ five-star service at three-star prices,” Gavin Pathross, the founder of Ratio, said in a reference to the multinational automaker in the United States.

In terms of cocktails, customers can also choose how many shots of alcohol they want in their drinks and the specific combination of liquors.

The starting price for a customised cocktail is about 60 yuan (RM36), cheaper than that for similar drinks at high-end bars in the city.

But Ratio’s crowning glory is something far more tangible.

It is also what makes this place the first of its kind in China.

Here, customers will not find baristas or mixologists preparing the drinks.

A solitary Italian-made robotic arm does the job, spinning around its enclosure where different cups, espresso machines and liquors are located within its perfectly tuned grasp.

Meanwhile, Ratio’s employees, all of whom are trained mixologists or baristas, perform a similar role to sommeliers, making recommendations to customers.

Most customers are fascinated as they watch the US$30,000 (RM121,940) robot go about performing its tasks with precision.

But while the guile of the robotic arm has left them mesmerised, it has also raised questions about the growing prevalence of automation in the workplace and how it will affect people.

In an interview with CNBC last year, Yum Brands chief executive officer Greg Creed was quoted as saying that machines could replace people in the food and beverage sector by the mid-2020s.

Much of Yum’s business in Shanghai has already embraced automation.

At Shanghai Pudong International Airport, KFC customers place their orders at an automated kiosk.

At Pizza Hut, a robot greets customers at the door.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, up to 800 million people worldwide could be displaced by automation by 2030.

But Pathross insists that his new business venture is not about diminishing the relevance of humans in the workforce.

“What we have here is a collaborative effort. The robots handle about 80% of the work.

“The last 20%, which involves tasks such as garnishing and adding ice, is performed by humans. The garnishing process is absolutely important because it affects perceived value,” said the 39-year-old, who used to be chief digital officer with Yum Brands.

“This is not about replacing humans with machines to save money. We think it’s a more efficient way of doing cocktails and coffee.

“It frees humans up from menial tasks and allows them to focus on other areas such as creating recipes.

“In fact, we can now afford to pay our staff more because we require less manpower in other areas. My savings are also reinvested into obtaining quality ingredients.”

Things also move quicker at Ratio. The robot can make two cups of latte within 90 seconds. A seasoned barista would need at least a minute to make just one cup.

However, aficionados would be quick to point out that this is because the coffee at Ratio comes straight from a fully automatic espresso machine.

In contrast, baristas go through a series of tasks, such as dosing the ground coffee into the portafilter, tamping to remove air pockets and ensuring the coffee is completely level, before pulling the shot.

The key difference between the fully automated and manual processes is the quality and flavour of the product, according to Nils Weisensee.

“I’ve never had good coffee from an automatic espresso vending machine,” said Weisensee, the founder of specialty coffee outlet Cafe del Volcan.

“I think that when it comes to perfecting the flavour of coffee, it’s hard for a machine to be better than humans.

“There is no doubt that technology is important in the process of coffee-making. Technology has allowed us to create sophisticated thermometers, weighing scales and water sensors that are crucial to coffee making.

“But I believe that a human still has to be at the core of the production process,” Weisensee said.

More pertinently, the coffee experience is determined not just by good flavour, but by the human element, he added.

He describes how the cafe is a community of like-minded people who love a good cup of coffee, and that the barista is the lynchpin of this community.

“When we think about the future, we always think about what technology can do. But we often don’t ask if these changes are even what we really want in life,” Weisensee said.

“Just because a piece of tech is available doesn’t mean we actually want to use it. Is the new technology addressing a problem, or is it taking away something people actually appreciate? There’s a huge difference.”

Yao Lu, founder of The Union Trading Company, one of the top cocktail bars in Shanghai, said that while using robots can make sense from a purely functional standpoint, such use of technology is the antithesis of hospitality.

“This place (Ratio) has got its concept of hospitality wrong. The beauty of a bar is in the human touch.

“It is about that handshake or hug you get from the bartenders. It’s about having them coming round the corner to do shots with you. It is these little touches that create a truly unique drinking experience,” he said.

Pathross maintains his stance that Ratio is not out to undermine craftsmanship or be a threat to such businesses.

“I’d like to think of Ratio as a partner to coffee places and cocktail bars.

“What we want to do here is let people explore tastes, which would in turn help them learn more about these beverages,” he said, before pointing out that market research had shown that Chinese consumers are generally unaccustomed to the flavours of popular cocktails.

The first Ratio outlet will open at the Raffles City shopping centre this month, and more store openings are planned.

Christopher Udemans, a writer at technology blog Technode who attended the soft launch of Ratio, said he expects such “hybrid” cafes and bars to become more common.

But he also stressed the importance of the human element.

“With rising rates of automation, it would make sense to delegate repetitive tasks to robots.

“However, I hope that complete automation in such an environment doesn’t arrive,” he said.

“It’s great being able to go into a bar and have a chat with the bartender, even if they are just there for interacting with customers and not making drinks.”

Bheki Mhlanga, a Ratio customer, said that such a concept could be a big hit in Shanghai, noting that trends take off very quickly in the city.

But like Udemans, Mhlanga is not too keen about total automation.

“Is a fully automated bar possible? Yes. Is it needed? Maybe not,” he said.

“A bar is a social venue, not a factory.” — China Daily/Asia News Network


Credit: The Star, Aseanplus News, 21.07.18
Robot-made vs human-made drinks