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No Cashiers, Just Quinoa: The Age of the Automated Fast Food Restaurant Is Upon Us

Inside San Francisco's new, "frictionless" dining experience.

 

"How many of you are quinoa lovers?" 

The question was put to us, a group of food writers, by Scott Drummond, the cofounder of Eatsa. We were standing in the gleaming, antiseptic confines of his company's flagship storefront, which is located at the bottom of a Spear Street office complex. When it opens on Monday, it will bring $6.95 quinoa bowls and a resounding lack of human interaction to San Francisco. The concept behind Eatsa is to bring fast-casual values—high-quality ingredients, relatively healthy meals—to a fast food space. Eatsa customers will order their food from a touch-pad kiosk and receive it, after approximately 69 seconds, via a glass-enclosed cubby. There will be no cashiers, just quinoa. And a lot of data: The touchpads will capture your name, credit card information, and order history, and use it to volunteer suggestions about what you should order the next time around. It will be, to use Drummond's words, "a frictionless experience."

Quinoa itself, however, is not necessarily a frictionless experience. "Most people," Young acknowleged, have had a "pretty one-dimensional" relationship with the grain. But his company believes in its powers, not only as an alternative protein—everything you order at Eatsa trumpets its favorable protein and calorie content—but as a unifier. Both Young and Drummond, who come, in case you hadn't figured that out, from the world of tech, repeatedly emphasized that there is "something for everyone" to eat at Eatsa. To illustrate his point, Drummond offered that during an earlier Eatsa preview, when quinoa bowls were offered to the public, a group of construction workers even ate (and liked) the food. If they could be turned, went the implication, then who couldn't?

Regardless of who's doing the eating, ordering at Eatsa is indeed frictionless: You pick from the selection of eight bowls on the screen, and then turn to face a wall of cubbies. A screen notifies you which cubby will deliver your meal. Then the bowl is deposited into the cubby via a mechanized shelf. No human hands are visible at any point during this transaction. There is only quinoa in a compostable bowl with your name on it. The juxtaposition is bizarre and slightly jarring: You're being given something that was presumably touched at some point by an actual human, but Eatsa labors heroically to make sure that the experience offers absolutely no sense of human connection. It's lunch by immaculate conception.

Drummond and Young were a bit cagey on the topic of what, exactly, goes on behind the cubby wall. They allowed that there were about five employees back there, but declined to say what roles they played in ensuring the bowls came out so quickly, and so perfectly. This left a lot of room for imagination: Two of my colleagues and I alternately theorized that the quinoa was pumped via frozen yogurt spout, delivered through a chute, or pooped out by a unicorn. Whatever the case, the quinoa, which Eatsa sources from Bolivia, was cooked to prime fluffiess. My No Worry Curry bowl (494 calories, 16 grams of protein) featured roasted potatoes, spaghetti squash, curried parnsip strips, pickled onions, and apple cabbage slaw. The ingredients were notably fresh, and taken as a whole were pleasant if a bit salty. It was remarkably inoffensive, in the way of food that is decided by a committee. Which it was, more or less: Drummond informed us that each of the "exhaustively tested" bowls was tasted by 100 people. Though how those 100 people tasted the No Worry Curry bowl and didn't notice its curious absence of curry (No Curry Curry?) remains a mystery. 

As we ate our bowls, the Pixies leaked incongruously from the sound system and Drummond and Young detailed their plans for Eatsa, which they are soon expanding beyond San Francisco. A location is scheduled for Los Angeles, and the company, which is backed by Dave Friedberg, the CEO of the Monsanto-owned Climate Corp, wants to branch out into more "underserved areas." Really, though, an ideal location for Eatsa, might be an airport or a roadside plaza, and I don't mean that in a bad way. The food is basically manna for a traveler weary of McDonald's and real human interaction; if I saw Eatsa's wall of cubbies squished between a Quiznos and a Burger King, I'd make a beeline for one of its touch pads.

In downtown San Francisco, however, I'm not quite so convinced. Our options are vast here, and our desire to order from a robot somewhat limited. When one of my colleagues asked Young what had led him to come up with the idea for Eatsa, he explained that after leaving his former tech job, he wanted to do something that would be more about community. But it's difficult to see how community factors into Eatsa, unless you can find community in a group of people staring at a wall, waiting for their food to appear. The quinoa might be passable, but as is often the case when food tech tries to save us from ourselves, the message is a little off.


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