Skip to main content

Edmonton-based Vendor Convenience turns 24/7 autonomous shopping into a 'spectacle'

Cashierless c-store adopts next-level technology with Robobarista.
Vendor Convenience Exterior image
Vendor Convenience is downtown at 109 St. NW south of 100 Ave. NW
Vendor Convenience Exterior image
Vendor Convenience is downtown at 109 St. NW south of 100 Ave. NW

What’s next in the 24/7 autonomous convenience store experience? How about a robotic barista, making drinks to order, from a flat white coffee and oat milk hot chocolate to Nada Coloda (a pina colada without alcohol), with precision, speed and high-tech theatre.

Lobbyist-turned-entrepreneur James Johnson, who in early July opened the first cashierless c- store in Edmonton called Vendor Convenience, is a believer.

And he has put his money where is mouth is, bringing the Robobarista developed by three-year-old Switzerland robotics upstart Smyze to his 1,350-sq.-ft. c-store, the first in North America to have the state-of-the-art machine.

Advertisement - article continues below
Smyze barista machine in pink
The Smyze Robobarista is already at retailers across Switzerland and in China: Edmonton boasts the North American debut

“We wanted to have fresh, good coffee, and when we were talking to suppliers they asked, ‘Who is going to be brewing the coffee?’ And I said, ‘Well, we can’t do that because we have no staff,’” recalls Johnson. “And so, I reached out to Smyze a couple years ago, wanting to learn more about their Robobarista, and they were thrilled because they wanted to expand into North America.”

The Smyze Robobarista is already at retailers across Switzerland and in China.

Making the voyage to Canada in a cargo ship from Europe, Vendor Convenience recently received its special delivery and installed the 2-by-2-metre self-contained kiosk complete with touchscreen menu. (Customers can also place orders via app.)

The Robobarista has been serving drinks to customers since Aug. 19, and has generated buzz. That includes increasing sign-up to the Vendor Convenience app, which is required for customers to enter and shop in the store by having purchases charged to their registered payment info.

“People are coming in groups to see the machine, make an order and watch it in action. Some of them even Facetime their friends as it happens,” says Johnson. “It’s almost part spectacle.”

Advertisement - article continues below

The spectacle includes the speed by which the robotic arm maneuvers (“in 60 seconds, you can have a latte”) and ability to make dozens of different drinks to individual specifications, from milk type, sugar content, ice volume and so on.

But aside from the entertainment value of the next-generation beverage station, most importantly Robobarista produces a good cup of java. While Johnson pushed for having local roasts, he says the Smyze team is adamant about providing their own high-quality European brew and says even coffee aficionados approve of the taste.

“We didn’t offer coffee initially and it was one of the things people wanted,” he says. “We’re a convenience store mostly and then grocery, so late morning and evening is when a lot of people do their shopping. Early morning is a bit slow, and the Robobarista has worked in bringing foot traffic to the store.”

Johnson didn’t buy the Robobarista, which would have cost a small fortune given he was told the technology costs about $250,000 to $300,000.  Instead, he says, “We have a partnership and share in the revenues it generates. We look after the machine, perform the daily maintenance and stock it up, but it’s theirs.”

Pricing is reasonable: a 7-oz flat white costs $4.50 and other drinks $4.99. “With our cashierless model, we can have lower prices,” Johnson notes.  

In a statement, Smyze CEO Daniel Adamec said, “We couldn’t have asked for a better city than Edmonton to introduce our Robobarista in North America,” noting that the Alberta capital has a thriving tech sector.

James Johnson who owns Vendor Convenience
James Johnson
James Johnson who owns Vendor Convenience
James Johnson

Johnson is a lobbyist by background and was director of research and special advisor for the United Conservative Caucus. Currently, he is director of public affairs for Alberta Counsel in addition to being a new c-store entrepreneur.

“[An industry insider} came to the store the other day, and they were like, ‘You’re not from convenience, are you? You’re a total amateur,’” he says with a chuckle. “Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I got into the business to solve my own problem.”

The problem was the c-store he would visit near his home to pick up drinks and snacks with his kids had shuttered during the pandemic. He also doesn’t like that a lot of independents are open only 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and waiting in line. (Vendor Convenience’s grand opening signage included, “We hate lineups.”)

“And so about two years ago I started the concept, a year ago started negotiating the lease and the store opened in July,” summarizes Johnson.

Located downtown at 109 Street NW south of 100 Ave NW, Vendor Convenience benefits from being on a high-traffic street with about 40,000 vehicles passing by daily, offices on one side of the street and apartment buildings on the other, and being a few blocks from the Alberta legislature.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he says of the sector. “And the price point wasn’t that much to get started compared to the half-a-million-dollar investment you need to take over as a franchisee with some of the more established chains.”

Vendor Convenience isn’t the only cashierless c-store in Edmonton anymore. In late July, Aisle 24 opened a location about a 20-minute drive away on Jasper Avenue, near 119 St NW.

Johnson thinks it’s only a matter of time before more stores adopt the cashierless model.  “If someone wanted to convert partially to this format, they could run a hybrid store and get part of their life back,” he says. “That’s the aim of all these technologies.”

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds