"... The beans whirred through pneumatic tubes overhead, sorted by the Selectifier (yes, Willy Wonka references are common)"
The Roasting Plant, at 81 Orchard Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side, is an essential destination for any one who cares about good coffee. Or anyone who wants a glimpse of how we will drink coffee in the future. It was recently Slashdotted for "using new thinking and methodologies to something that was previously regarded as a black art." Gizmag.com called it the world's first "walk-in coffee machine." And a cover story in Design News praised the "real-time distributed control system" for democratizing and streamlining the coffee-making process so that the trip from green bean to creamy cup takes less than 30 seconds and never yields bitterness.
Remember, we're still talking about coffee. And despite the Terry Gilliam–like devices, the Roasting Plant is about the next iteration in American coffee culture, stripping away confections and condiments to reveal a very good cup of Joe. The Ethiopian Harrar Longberry cappuccino that I enjoyed there recently was as beautiful for its cupping qualities—with pleasant blueberry notes—as for the space-age process by which the beans whirred through pneumatic tubes overhead, sorted by the Selectifier (yes, Willy Wonka references are common), and dropped into an Egro brewing machine, guided by selections on a touch screen and the wizardry of the custom-designed Javabot (international patent number PLT/US03/02069). You've got to see it to believe it.
"The theatre was a byproduct," said Mike Caswell, co-founder and the industrial engineer who briefly worked at Starbucks, before he joined forces with marketing guy Tom Hartocollis. The real goal was to eliminate as many variables—and human error—as possible in order to deliver "the freshest, most flavorful cup of coffee available."
The automation also freed up the server—less of a barista and more like a bartender or even a coffee sommelier—to focus on helping customers customize their cup. "We can create a blend for you on the fly," Caswell said, ordering up a mild cup that included one part Guatemala, one part New Guinea, and one part Longberry. "If the customer is inquisitive, we will engage them to the extent of their inquisitiveness. But the advantage is that it doesn't have to be a complicated cup of coffee."
In other words, the Roasting Plant's technology is a means to java pleasure. The light-filled shop is cozy, even with its laboratory-like decor; the sidewalk scene was hopping. There's Tom Cat pastries inside, Il Laboratorio del Gelato (which uses the Plant's beans for its espresso blends) down the street, and Katz's and Russ & Daughters just around the corner.
Expansion in the Works
But because the technology is modular and infinitely replicable, the Roasting Plant, open for just one year, has already been approached by investors from around the country and will be adding a larger, even more teched-out location in Greenwich Village this summer.
Caswell and Hartcollis admit they're riding a national wave of Starbucks-inspired interest in coffee, they think the West Coast coffee culture has become stagnant. "Starbucks and Peet's brought us one thing," Caswell said. "But the East Coast can bring something different. There's a movement back to just coffee."
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