Choosing a Traditional or Superautomatic Espresso Machine

by Andrew Hetzel - Date: 2007-02-05 - Word Count: 1473 Share This!

With increasing frequency there is one question we are asked by prospective new coffee shop owners more than any other when choosing equipment: should we use a superautomatic or traditional style commercial espresso machine for our new business? Over that past few years, advances in commercial superautomatic espresso machine technology have made systems that can do everything from grinding beans, tamping and extracting espresso to frothing milk, easier to operate and more reliably consistent than ever before. The lure quickly serving consistent specialty coffee beverages with minimal operator skill requirements has contributed to highly visible coffee industry leaders such as Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, even McDonald's with its 300 McCafe stores to favor the superautomatic approach.

We agree that these machines can be well suited to a variety of different business models and locations, but before making the decision that this is the right approach for you, here are a few points to consider that we find are sometimes overlooked by the prospective buyer:

Perception of Value: Consider the impact a superautomatic system has not on the consistency and taste of beverages that you serve, but on the consumers' perceived value of your product and service. Consumer research firms have run countless studies not limited to the specialty coffee, beverage or even food industries that all point to the same conclusion: Your customer does not want to hand over $3.50 for a cup of coffee, only to watch someone turn around and press a button.

Despite the best intentions of espresso machine engineers, customers do pay for "sizzle" as well as the "steak" and human intervention in the form of a trained Barista does improve the perceived value (and most importantly the subsequent acceptable selling price) of your beverages. How much of an impact this has on your business, however, depends on the consumer expectation that a Barista should be present and visible in your environment. So as you may expect, the negative impact is greatest at a traditional-style Italian café or coffee bar and least in a fast food outlet, drive through or non-traditional location like a retail store or business office. If you look closely at those big chain locations where superautomatic rollouts have been successful, you will notice that there is a direct correlation between the consumer visibility of those machines and the expectation of whether or not they should be there… it is not accident that "big guys" in the coffee industry are successful, use what they can teach you to improve your own business.

Cleaning & Maintenance: It comes as no shock to anyone that has made their own cup of coffee or shot of espresso before that coffee is a messy business. The oils that are combined with water to produce crema as they are extracted under heat and pressure are always present in coffees and may be more pronounced in some roasters product than others. At any point where coffee makes contact with your machine, oily residue will adhere begin to build. This buildup will clog ground or liquid coffee pathways and cause machine failures very quickly. As a result of their complexity there is less margin for error or neglect of cleaning superautomatic machines than traditional machines. To continue working properly it is critical that regular cleaning be performed to manufacturer specifications. Most machines incorporate visual displays and automated or operator guided prompts so the problem is not one of complexity, but that the processes be performed at all!

Similarly, maintenance is a critical factor for the health of your superautomatic. In addition to the moving or expanding and contracting parts you regularly expect to service or replace in a traditional espresso machine such as gaskets, solenoids, valves, flowmeters and pushbuttons, keep in mind that with superautomatics you now also have pistons, servos, new internal hydraulic systems and the electronics to run them with which to contend, all in one tightly enclosed space. The greater your serving volume, the more care will be needed.

We suggest regular schedules for routine preventative maintenance - generally 3-4 times per year based on usage. Most high-ed superautomatic systems today incorporate sophisticated electronics that will warn the operator when cleaning, routine or emergency maintenance are required; we recommend that the importance of these messages be regularly stressed by your management to your shop personnel so that action is taken to keep things operating smoothly. Speed & Dispensing Milk: It is true that many commercial superautomatics are designed for speed, often using large grinding burrs and performing extractions at higher pressure than traditional systems in order to reduce extraction times. However, if your goal is to increase speed and you plan to dispense milk automatically as well, you may wish to reconsider your approach. As you again look at big chain model locations, you will notice that very few incorporate one-step systems that automatically dispense milk for milk-based espresso beverages such as a cappuccino or caffe latte. Cleanliness and additional maintenance for the automated milk handling systems is one reason why, but the more important consideration is speed.

Even high volume superautomatic systems in one-step configurations produce the milk necessary for only one beverage at a time. In the time necessary for a machine to heat and dispense the milk required for a single 8oz beverage (generally followed by a cleaning cycle), a traditional steam wand can heat and serve a 31oz (1L) pitcher with enough milk for 3 drinks.

Recognizing this opportunity to gain precious seconds at the order line, industrious manufacturers such as Franke have incorporated mechanisms that eliminate complexity from the task of steaming and frothing milk, namely, by incorporating a temperature sensitive steam wand on two-step machines that automatically switches off the steaming mechanism when the proper serving temperature has been reached.

One-step superautomatic machines remain the system of choice for self-service location or other environments like office break rooms where convenience outweighs the benefit of throughput, but if your goal is a high speed drive through, consider a two-step machine as your best option.

Redundancy: If these new superautomatics are so reliable, why are you recommending two? This is a common and completely legitimate response immediately following Cafemakers proposal to many prospective superautomatic espresso machine users. Our answer to this question is simple: Even though superautomatic systems are more reliable than ever before, the likelihood of an inoperable failure is far greater than with any traditional machine.

Take for example the case of a flowmeter failure. In traditional automatic and in superautomatic systems, a flowmeter uses a tiny turbine to gauge the volume of water dispensed by counting electrical impulses generated by rotating magnets, like a speedometer on a bicycle. If a flowmeter should fail in a traditional machine, it would be an inconvenience but not necessarily close the business. In this situation a traditional 2, 3 and 4 group user has the option to use other group heads with their own redundant independent electronics to continue extracting espresso, and in most cases continue to use the affected group head in semi-automatic model by controlling the start and stop of the water flow for that group manually. The superautomatic user in this same situation is shut down until repairs can be made to restore the system unless a second, redundant superautomatic machine is present to continue in its place.

In environments using a superautomatic espresso machine that coffee is the primary source of income, such as an espresso drive through location, you should always have at least two independent machines. A second system should be considered even in other locations where "uptime" is important but not potentially crippling to the business, such as restaurant back-of-house locations or specialty food markets.

Technology Panacea: The final important consideration that is often overlooked is that your problem may not be one that can be solved by technology alone. We often receive requests from existing businesses that wish to deploy new superautomatic machines to fix problems that are merely symptoms of other fundamental business problems.

For example, a superautomatic espresso machine will improve the consistency of your beverages but will not necessarily improve consistency of your beverages if the problem originates with the consistency of coffee received from your roaster. A superautomatic espresso machine will reduce the training time required of your employees to serve good beverages, but it will not transform unqualified candidates into star employees in all aspects of customer service.

Before choosing a new machine or making your decision to switch to a superautomatic solution, make sure that that resulting goals that you hope to achieve are obtainable by the implementation of automation. Sometimes a careful business assessment will come to the determination that changes are required not with the musical instrument, but rather with the musician or score. There is no technology that will solve all problems and make your business an instant success, but the availability of these new tools gives you options never before available to streamline and improve your business.

Related Tags: traditional, espresso machine, starbucks, superautomatic, semi-automatic, mccafe, dunkin donuts

Andrew Hetzel is the president and founder of Cafemakers, a specialty coffee business consultancy based in Hawaii. Cafemakers shows restaurants, hospitality businesses and coffee shops in North America and worldwide how to improve customer satisfaction and profitability by serving better quality coffee. Information is available online at or by calling (808) 443-0290.

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