With Its Fancy New Coffee Machine, Milk SF Wants to Help Revolutionize the Service Industry

With Its Fancy New Coffee Machine, Milk SF Wants to Help Revolutionize the Service Industry

That’s a bold claim indeed, considering how ubiquitous the pour-over approach has been in the Bay Area’s high-end coffee scene, each individual cup meticulously hand-brewed by a barista wielding a small copper kettle. Ground Control’s brewer, on the other hand, is the first new batch brewing technology—wherein a machine quickly brews a large quantity of coffee—since the 1950s. The Forbidden Planet–looking device uses a patented vacuum technology to extract coffee from the grounds two or three times, drying the coffee grounds between takes to prevent bitterness. Your typical drip coffee brewer uses gravity to bring water through the grounds. The Ground Control machine fully immerses the coffee grounds in water, more like a French press.

Close-up view of Ground Control's space age–looking machine, with coffee brewing in a clear glass cylinder on top.
Close-up view of the Ground Control Coffee brewer’s patented vacuum brewing mechanism in action at Merchant Coffee in Prescott, Arizona. (Sean Marin/Merchant Coffee)

The coffee industry has always been dynamic, even if classic diners are still making their coffee with old-fashioned Bunn brewers. More recently, FETCO coffee brewers added important innovations like customizable settings for brew time, temperature and volume. And “smart” brewing, as practiced by companies like Ground Control, is a quantum leap.

Salomon says his machine has passed every hurdle. It even manages to earn green points by using ? the amount of coffee beans to produce the same cup as other brewers. Salomon says there was a lot of skepticism when Ground Control launched in Salomon’s San Francisco kitchen eight years ago. “Now,” he says, “folks have had a chance to try the cup, and most of our critics have joined our side.” 

Count Umeko Motoyoshi among those who are fully convinced. They are the host of coffee podcast A Better Table and are high-key famous in the coffee world. The Q grader and former barista spent an entire week solely focused on learning how the Ground Control machine works. 

“With a batch brewer, baristas don’t have to live in fight-or-flight mode just to keep up,” Motoyoshi writes in an email to KQED. “And Ground Control’s extraction technology is such that it’s not just consistent, it’s consistently excellent.”

The labor-saving aspect of the machine, which can produce 11 12-ounce cups of freshly brewed coffee at the touch of a button, is especially appealing to Motoyoshi. They say that the expectations that customers have of a cafe can never really be fulfilled by the baristas, and that any technology that can support the work experience is a godsend.  

“This would have saved so much stress, hassle, and bodily wear and tear,” Motoyoshi writes of their time working the bar. “Moreover, it would have sent a message that the owner cared about my health and happiness.”

The machine also impressed Helen Russell, co-owner and founder of Equator Coffees and Tea, who says the difference is “like propeller planes to jets.” Russell used to drill extra holes into the baskets of her Bunn batch brewer in order to coax more flavor out of the beans. Now that she’s installed the Ground Control brewer in her Fort Mason shop, making Equator Salomon’s first Bay Area customer, those extra steps are no longer necessary. 

“For us to be putting it in our stores says something about the product,” Russell says. “It was a huge risk.”

Now, Equator’s Proof Lab in Mill Valley and its new location in Culver City also use Ground Control machines. The Michelin three-starred chef Dominique Crenn even asked about the machine during a visit to Equator. Now she’s got one in her new Salesforce Tower bakery. 

Throughout the world the company has placed a little over 200 of their machines. In the Bay Area, they’ve installed about 30. But in the coffee shop–laden Mission, the technology is still catching on. While Dandelion Chocolate sports a Ground Control brewer, Milk SF is the only business exclusively using the rig.

In part, that decision was the result of a personal connection between the two businesses. Long before Salomon launched Ground Control, he would get his hair cut by McKee at Glama-rama!, the venerable Mission District hair salon she now owns, every few weeks for the better part of a decade. Knowing McKee loved coffee, he invited her for tastings in his living room once he’d developed a prototype. At the time, McKee joked that she would buy a machine from Salomon one day. “I have a friend who is going to change coffee,” she  says. “And now I have the opportunity to be a part of it.”

A Better Post-Pandemic Service Industry

Does the coffee itself live up to the hype? A few weeks ago, I had the chance to sit outside Ground Control’s retrofitted garage warehouse in West Oakland, sipping coffee prepared on the machine as a generous East Bay sun beamed down. And I, too, was convinced: The coffee was really, really good. It reminded me of the first time I tried coffee at a Bay Area coffee shop back in 2018 and my small-town Washington mind was fully blown. Clean, fruity, sweet and tasty—words I had never associated with coffee. The Ground Control coffee felt similarly new.

But cafes are about more than just the taste of their coffee: They’re about the time, labor and money that go into their drinks, too. According to Salomon, Ground Control aims to make a positive difference in those aspects as well.

“Service folks should live without fear that they won’t be able to pay their student loans,” Salomon says. “To make ends meet, cafe owners sometimes take money from their staff in the form of permanent below-living wages, and that isn’t ethical. If you can’t pay your team in a way that they can live in their community without fear of a deep financial burden, that’s a doomed scenario.”

A Ground Control Coffee batch brewer in a coffee shop in front of an exposed brick wall with shelving.
A Ground Control machine in the wild at 392 Caffe in Davenport, Iowa. (Matt Umland)

The Ground Control system runs about four times the cost of a typical drip machine, but to Salomon, the high price point of the machine is an investment in community betterment. The machine is easy to use, which means there’s less of a barrier to entry for someone to become a skilled barista. And because the coffee produced by the Ground Control machines is popular, in theory they allow business owners to pay their employees better, too. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, Ground Control customer Cirque Coffee went from selling five gallons of iced latte a day to 30 gallons, earning an estimated additional revenue of $40,000 a month. It’s unsurprising, then, that Ground Control’s business septupled during the pandemic. 

It’s true, however, that a coffee shop owner might simply choose to pocket any additional profits rather than hire back COVID-furloughed employees. The relative simplicity of the Ground Control machines might even allow a cafe to reduce its workforce even further. Salomon, for his part, says he doesn’t want Ground Control to replace employees. 

“One of the great tragedies of COVID has been that many members of the coffee community have lost their jobs,” he says. “And many of them being those at the most financially vulnerable members of the coffee community, in entry-level roles.” 

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