Machine-made coffee in a world of foo foo java

The story behind the best cuppa joe a vending machine robot can make.

Master of Public Health student Mageen Caines purchases coffee from the vending machine in Moos Tower on Monday. The machine, located across from a Caribou Coffee, competes for business by offering coffee beverages at a lower cost.

Juliet Farmer

Master of Public Health student Mageen Caines purchases coffee from the vending machine in Moos Tower on Monday. The machine, located across from a Caribou Coffee, competes for business by offering coffee beverages at a lower cost.

Thomas Q. Johnson

A paper cup dropped into its slot with a familiar empty thud. Just for you, the friendly robot barista inside one of the University of Minnesota’s 21 Twin Cities campus coffee vending machines activated its coffee-making sequence.

Beans fell from a hopper into a whirring grinder while a hose slurped the prescribed volume of near-boiling water and dumped it over the mix. As your beverage drizzled into the cup, punctuated with banging injections of whatever flavor shots you ordered, the robo-barista made change, one quarter at a time.

The dial-up modem song of coffee preparation now done, your fresh cup of honest, simple coffee was ready to drink.

“No tip, please,” the machine seemed to say. “It was my pleasure.”

The simple charms of coffee machines occupy a diminishing role in the University’s increasingly crowded java scene. A dozen “Coffee Cafes,” as the University officially calls them, like Walter Library’s Wise Owl Cafe, Java City on West Bank, Lind Hall’s notoriously long-lined Starbucks and the Caribou Coffee in Moos Tower, now serve a majority of coffee drinkers’ needs.

Leslie Bowman, executive director of contract administration for the University’s auxiliary services (the department that manages vending services), agreed there was more coffee vending on campus before the gourmet coffee craze hit. Her job is to balance the two to better serve the campus’s needs.

“The U is kind of ahead of the curve in terms of vending,” she said. “We are working really hard to meet the needs of our diverse campus. Some people think, ‘Oh, they’re just candy bars,’ but vending is more than that. It is a big business.”

Coffee is not included in the University’s beverage contract with Coca Cola. Instead, the task of managing coffee machines falls to Minnetonka, Minn.-based Taher Inc. Missy Ek, vending contract manager for vending services, said Taher takes its job seriously.

“They’re very educated. … They watch their numbers,” Ek said. “We really rely on Taher to bring us the best product for each location.”

Anything other than straight black coffee is considered “foo foo,” said Sandy Schoenthaler, Taher’s regional manager.

Taher has the ability to experiment and bring in new products that some vending companies can’t. Schoenthaler, for example, plans releases for foo foo flavors like raspberry for Valentine’s Day and pumpkin for the fall.

Vending machine coffee gets a bad rap as the coffee of last resort — something cheap to buy when there are no other options — but much of that is undeserved, Schoenthaler said.

The University’s coffee vending machines use CityKid Java beans, the same beans used in residence halls and University services around campus. CityKid Java’s proceeds go to support the local nonprofit Urban Ventures Youth Leadership Foundation.

Unlike some machines, which use pre-ground beans again and again, Taher vending machines don’t grind beans until a selection is made.

“We live in a bean world,” Schoenthaler said. “We want our coffee to have a fresh-ground taste, not a nobody’s-had-a-cup-for-two-days taste.”