It seems apt that moments after Bladerunner 2049 was released, Melbourne’s first robot barista was born.

Once Alike is the cafe now shooting Australia into the 21st century. Situated inside a cosy shopfront of just 10 square metres on Rokeby Street in Collingwood, it’s more like a showroom than a cafe – a showroom for the country’s – possibly the world’s – first completely manual robotic barista.

Robot baristas made global news earlier this year when San Francisco establishment Café X launched with a robotic coffee maker. There, a robot simply operates an already-automated coffee machine, essentially moving cups around faster than the human hand.

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Melbourne’s Rocky – as he is known to his founding fathers at Once Alike – offers a more “bespoke” service. It is, for all accounts, an (ahem) replica of a human barista. That means Rocky replicates all the manual gestures of its human counterpart, and offers almost the same personalised service you would get from any specialty barista, minus beard and small talk.

At this stage Rocky is still being tested, which means a single coffee can take anywhere from two to six minutes to make. That’s because it’s been programmed to abort mission if it makes a coffee that doesn’t fall within a narrow margin of acceptability. Once the bugs have been ironed out the speed target is 60 to 90 seconds per coffee, akin to a high-speed human barista.

As for the taste? Rocky makes a damn fine cup of coffee.

“I’m confident the machine can make coffee as well as any barista,” says Liam Wilkie, one of the engineers behind the project and himself a barista of 10 years’ standing at St ALi, Sensory Lab and Plantation.

But why develop Rocky in the first place? Wilkie sees automation as a way to take the grunt work out of making coffee.

“When you’ve been in the industry so long, you realise the most important things are quality and consistency. People want their coffee the same every time they go back to a cafe that specialises in coffee. There are limitations to having a human behind the bar. We get stressed and emotional in busy periods. It’s not fun to make 1000 lattes on a Saturday – it’s really hard work.”

We might be a way off from the automated dystopia of Bladerunner, but Wilkie believes the consistency and precision required by the coffee-making process is something that can be fulfilled by automation.

Rocky has been developed from the ground up by a team of engineers led by Flynn MacFarlane, the owner of Aabak, the cafe’s parent company. It has been developing the robot since August 2016. Rocky is the second prototype the company has developed, and will be superseded by an as-yet-unnamed “Rocky II” in June 2018.

“When I look at other industries, like food services, they pay attention to updating different processes, but the coffee industry hasn’t applied current technology in the same way to make the customer experience better. There’s a gap here and machines can take the grunt work out of the process, with more consistency,” says Wilkie.

“I want to serve better coffee, that’s it. Automation is a clear path for that.”

“I don’t think baristas will be completely replaced because there’s an aspect of human interaction that’s desired,” Wilkie continues. “It might be that the robot makes the coffee and hands it to a barista to make the latte art, or [you could] leave the machines to make the coffee and the humans to serve people at a seated cafe. I think there’s enough coffee drinkers in Melbourne for all these things to happen in parallel.”

For now, Once Alike is essentially a testing lab for the robot, albeit one that’s open to the public. Open hours are 7am to 10am, between which times you can order from the full fleet of standard Australian coffee orders: long and short blacks (dash of water optional); macchiatos; flat whites; lattes; single and double shots; with sugar (in ½-teaspoon increments); and a choice of full, skim or soy milk in regular, half or three-quarter doses. Right now, during testing, all coffees are free.

There is a human “concierge” on-site to answer questions, but as of this week Rocky has been behind the group heads operating solo. Testing and modifications will continue through January 2018 with a plan to open for full-time, paid service from early February. MacFarlane says the pricing will be “competitive”.

Once Alike
28 Rokeby Street, Collingwood

Mon to Fri 7am–10am

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