Sawyer is the name of the the robot barista at the Henna Cafe in Shibuya, the popular downtown business and shopping district in Tokyo. The robot cafe is appropriately named; 'Henna' is a Japanese word that translates to 'strange'.
To avail of its services, a customer must first purchase a ticket from a vending machine that will be shown to the robot. After it scans the ticket, Sawyer will issue greetings in a monotone voice.
Sawyer's creators, Boston-based Rethink Robotics, definitely possess a sense of humor. A small screen perches atop the mono-armed "collaborative robot". The LCD display features a pair of disinterested cartoon eyes that stare at amused customers.
"Would you care for a delicious coffee? I can make one better than human beings around here," it utters in a deliberately dull tone.
The robot barista goes through much the same routine as its human counterparts does. Sawyer grinds whole beans, adds the grind to the filters, pours hot water, and serves the resulting coffee to as many as five people.
The price for a cup of robot-made joe is around $3.
The red-and-black Sawyer also runs another automated machine. This one is not a robot, but it does serves cappuccino, hot chocolate, green tea latte, and other hot drinks.
The idea of a robot barista proves charming enough to merit a steady line of customers. A good number of them are young men who snap photos of themselves and Sawyer with their smartphones.
Not all of the customers are young men. Takeshi Yamamoto is a senior citizen who happens to work in a neighborhood restaurant. He decided to see what the fuss is all about.
'It's quite rich, and tastes very good,' he says while enjoying a sip of the coffee Sawyer brewed for him. This is Mr. Yamamoto's first experience with a robot barista. So far he's liking it.
"You can get machine-made coffee at convenience stores, too, and it's actually good. But here, I had great fun," he adds.
Fun is the exact description sought out by H.I.S. Co., the travel agency that came up with the idea of Henna Cafe and its robot barista Sawyer. H.I.S. believes robots can serve the dual function of boosting productivity and enthralling customers into repeat business.
According to Masataka Tamaki, general manager of corporate planning at H.I.S., improving productivity is one of the two major factors behind the automation of Henna Cafe. He notes that a regular coffee shop requires a staff of several people. In comparison, a robot cafe can make do with just one overseer.
Sawyer's design is also quite compact. The so-called "collaborative robot" can operate in the tight confines of the typical counter at a coffee shop. And whereas a human server is prone to errors like spilling drinks or making mistakes with orders, Sawyer's robotic ilk are guaranteed to operate within a minuscule +/1 0.1 millimeter margin of error.
The savings from the staff expenses and real estate costs allow Henna Cafe to serve good coffee that won't empty the wallets of customers.
But Mr. Tamaki stresses that efficiency was only part of the reason for automating the Shibuya coffee shop.
"We want the robot to entertain customers," he explained. "So it's not like buying coffee at a vending machine."
Given the positive feedback from Mr. Yamamoto and other customers, it seems Sawyer and Henna Cafe are enough of a hit to stay in business for the time being.