A Former Tesla Executive Is Betting on a Rule-Breaking Coffee Machine

(Bloomberg) — For all the innovation and debate surrounding the art of coffee making, the basic premise of dousing freshly ground beans with hot water doesn’t change much. But the Ground Control coffee machine is out to break a cardinal rule of coffee brewing: don’t reuse the grounds.

Ground Control machines, made by Oakland, Calif.-based Voga Coffee Inc., are crowned with an eye-catching glass bulb with double helix extraction tubes that look like a Back to the Future prop. They’re a window into the brewing process of the machine, which washes coffee grounds with fresh water over separate cycles, usually three or four, each time catching different flavors and characteristics from the beans. The result is a preternaturally smooth cup, without the bitterness or thin flavor that reused grounds will conjure up.

The difference between those short washes and adding the same amount of water slowly as in a traditional drip coffee machine is that when the liquid hangs around the grounds for a while, it starts to absorb less appealing characteristics, like bitterness, as the bean compounds dissolve . The Ground Control machine can target different tastes from the beans with each cycle of water by controlling by factors like temperature and bean agitation; between washes, the grounds are quickly dried.

The machines also use a patented process that employs vacuum suction to extract the consecutive rounds of brewed liquid, monitored on a small display screen beneath the glass bulb. The mini brews are then blended together to make cups of hot coffee, cold brew, and a concentrate that mimics espresso.

Although the company has been around for almost a decade—it was co-founded by Chief Executive Officer Eli Salomon in 2013—the machines are now increasingly in use worldwide. That’s because of its ability to batch brew coffee with well-controlled flavor quickly, consistently, and in high volume.

Last October, Ground Control completed a $4.25 million series A fundraising round. Michael Marks, former chief executive officer at Tesla Inc. and Flextronics International USA Inc., now the founding managing partner at Celesta Capital LLC, was the lead investor.

“What’s impressive to me is that this is a young company, with big sophisticated manufacturing,” says Marks in a phone interview. “They are working with important chains and companies. That’s a testament to the quality of the product. Generally big chains don’t work with little companies unless there’s a compelling reason.” He added that he would “continue to invest” in the company.

“We’re turning lab-grade chemistry into a practical way to brew coffee,” says Salomon, who got serious about coffee while studying for the bar exams at Harvard. “From a chemistry perspective, every time you add fresh water, you’re resetting the extraction curves.” In other words, every time the ground beans are rinsed with fresh water, new flavors and characteristics will be pulled out.

Ground Control systems have been installed at the ingredient-focused restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. Gaggan Anand, whose former Bangkok dining spot Gaggan had been ranked among the world’s best, bought two machines, for his cafe CDGRE.

There are four in use at the LinkedIn campus in Sunnyvale, Calif.; the live-streaming platform Twitch has put them in their offices in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The beloved Acme Bread recently bought a machine for their Ferry Building location in San Francisco, selling coffee for the first time in its 40-year history.

The machine is also a favorite of top-of-the-line coffeeshops including Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas, Equator Coffees in San Francisco, and the Coffee Project in New York City. “It’s like a practical science experiment that creates delicious coffee,” says Sum Ngai, Coffee Project co-founder. In fact, although the machine comes programmed with recipes for multiple cycles with variable controls like temperature and time, customers can create their own and also play with ingredients. At Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco, a Ground Control machine makes coffee infused with cacao nibs.

Called the Cyclops, Ground Control machines can brew up to 8 gallons of coffee or cold brew per hour and goes for $10,900. Salomon declined to share actual figures, but says revenue doubled from 2019 to 2020 and more than tripled from 2020 to 2021 and continues to climb.

Demand for the machine from coffee shops, says Salomon, is because of Ground Control’s ability to efficiently produce the concentrate to make up to 6 gallons of high-quality batched iced lattes per hour.

Take, for instance, the Wilmington, Del.-based Brew HaHa. Jillian Bruce-Willis, director of operations, says that installing Ground Control machines cut labor time by 19 hours and wait time by 14 hours at the mini chain’s two highest volume cafes. It also helped generate a $14,000 revenue increase in July compared to the previous year.

“There’s only so much two baristas can do,” she said. Besides the financial advantage, she added, “it allows us to be more efficient during service while also providing better consistency of drinks.” Using the Cyclops machine requires someone to “push a button every 15 minutes,” according to Salomon. “For espresso-based iced lattes, the serving time is about two minutes. For Ground Control it’s two seconds—seven if you count opening the fridge,” says Salomon.

Salomon’s pricey machine has invited haters. “A lot of people early on said, ‘It’s a scam to brew coffee multiple times.’ And, ‘spending this money on a machine so much more than drip, it’s unfair,’” he recalls. “They’ve mostly backed down on that.”

Marks says, half jokingly, that he hopes Ground Control will be as profitable as Tesla. The investor observes one major similarity. “They’re both players in big global markets,” he observes. “Like Tesla, It’s got a lot of competitors and a lot of haters.”

©2022 Bloomberg LP

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