Ex-Tesla executive bets on coffee machine breaking rules

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

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

The difference between these short washes and the slow addition of the same amount of water as in a traditional drip coffee machine is that when the liquid sits around the floor for a while, it begins to absorb less attractive characteristics. , like bitterness, as the grain compounds dissolve. . The Ground Control machine can target different bean tastes with each water cycle by controlling by factors such as temperature and bean agitation; between washes, floors dry quickly.

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

Although the company has been around for almost a decade – it was co-founded by CEO Eli Salomon in 2013 – the machines are now in increasing use around the world. This is because of its ability to batch brew coffee with well-controlled flavor quickly, consistently and in high volume.

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

“What impresses me is that this is a young company, with great sophisticated manufacturing,” Marks says in a phone interview. “They work with major chains and companies. It is a guarantee of product quality. In general, large chains do not work with small businesses unless there is a compelling reason. He adds that he would “continue to invest” in the company.

“We’re turning lab chemistry into a convenient way to brew coffee,” says Salomon, who took a serious interest in coffee while studying for the bar exams at Harvard. “Chemically, every time you add fresh water, you reset the extraction curves.” In other words, each time the ground beans are rinsed with fresh water, new flavors and characteristics will be extracted.

Ground Control systems were installed at the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California. Gaggan Anand, whose former Bangkok restaurant Gaggan had been ranked among the best in the world, bought two machines for his CDGRE cafe.

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

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

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

The demand for the coffee machine, Salomon explains, is driven by Ground Control’s ability to efficiently produce the concentrate to make up to 6 gallons of high-quality batch iced lattes per hour.

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

“There’s not much two baristas can do,” she said. Apart from the financial benefit, she added, “it allows us to be more efficient when serving while providing better drink consistency.” Using the Cyclops machine requires someone to “press 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’re going to open the fridge,” says Salomon.

Solomon’s expensive machine invited the enemies. “A lot of people said at first, ‘It’s a scam to brew coffee multiple times. And “spending that money on a machine much more than drip is unfair,” he recalls. “They mostly backed off on that.”

Marks says, half-jokingly, that he hopes Ground Control will be as profitable as Tesla. The investor observes a major similarity. “They are both players in major global markets,” he observes. “Like Tesla, there are a lot of competitors and a lot of haters.”

©2022 Bloomberg LP

About Jeffery L. Parker

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