Will automation lead to server-less restaurants?

Discussion
Sep 14, 2015

Reminding some of the automats of yore, a new fast-food concept, Eatsa, with national rollout ambitions, has opened in San Francisco without any servers or counter help.

The restaurant offers a menu of quinoa bowls featuring a variety of fresh ingredients. For example, "The Mediterranean" bowl is described as: "Quinoa Herb Salad and Arugula topped with Tomato, Cucumber, Artichoke Hearts, Kalamata Olives, Feta Cheeseand Dill Yogurt Sauce."

Here’s how it works:

  • Customers select their order from an iPad, customize it and pay for it;
  • Their name, taken from their credit card, appears on another screen;
  • When the food is ready, a number shows up next to their name indicating in which glass cubby the order can be found;

Eatsa’s founders said the automation saves money on both payroll and real estate by not hiring people to work in the front of the restaurant. At $6.95 per bowl, the system helps bring healthy food to the marketplace at a more accessible price. With some further automation in the preparation stage, the system promises speed as well.

Eatsa

Photos: Eatsa

"It’s essentially lunch on demand," said Scott Drummond, a co-founder, in a press release. "Eatsa’s Order Anywhere concept translates to zero wait time for customers. No more waiting in line. No more $12 lunch salads. Just delicious food that is nutritious, affordable and quick."

Eatsa’s virtual cashier also remembers every customer, allowing for "highly personalized interaction and tailored suggestions."

Several articles on Eatsa explored whether the next evolution of automation would be server-less restaurants. The fate of lower-skilled service jobs has become a sensitive topic amid minimum wage hikes and the mandating of health benefits to be paid by employers of a certain size in some cities, such as San Francisco.

Writing for the Financial Times, Andrew McAfee, a co-author of "The Second Machine Age" and a blogger for FT.com, believes many of the interactions with human servers — ordering, hearing about specials, getting the bill and paying — are "distractions from my restaurant experience, not additions to it."

He adds, "This poses no danger to our shared humanity; we will grab our robo-generated quinoa bowls and iced coffees and, while eating them, talk to our colleagues, friends and families just like today."

"We can sit and debate all day what the implications are for low-wage workers at restaurants, but I don’t think that’s fair," David Friedberg, another c-founder, told The New York Times. "If increased productivity means cost savings get passed to consumers, consumers are going to have a lot more to spend on lots of things."

What do you think of the prospect of automation leading to fast-food restaurants without counter help or restaurants without servers? As a consumer, would you find the Eatsa concept appealing?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"From NAFTA and the TPP to the coming driver-less Ubers to grocery self-checkout (even if your order tops $150), we seem determined to eliminate the jobs that people with no college degree could take. If we head much further down this path I’ll predict problems beyond what we already have."
"Automation depends upon the type of food and the restaurant. The delivery in a bowl food prep seems ideally suited to serving by order-on-demand. So if the menu is simple enough to allow the consumer to manage the selection, then maybe the technology works."
"I have absolutely nothing to prove this, but every fiber in my being says that this will not be accepted. It’s sterile, robotic and completely devoid of what physical spaces are supposed to be about, which is human interaction and shared experiences."

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21 Comments on "Will automation lead to server-less restaurants?"


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Dick Seesel
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

I’m old enough to remember eating at Horn & Hardart automats in New York when visiting as a kid, and being fascinated by the idea. (And the pie!) And I saw a variation on this idea on a recent trip to Europe, which suggests that the idea is headed back to the U.S.

I’m not suggesting that 21st century automats will sweep the nation, but I do see some growth potential here. RetailWire panelists have already commented on the number of shoppers (especially Millennials) who prefer to avoid human interaction in stores by using self-checkout, etc. This is another version of the same idea, although there will continue to be plenty of consumers (and diners) who do want face-to-face contact … but I can also see the idea applied to fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s in the future, too.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

There’s some kind of strange war on workers going on in this country. From NAFTA and the TPP to the coming driver-less Ubers to grocery self-checkout (even if your order tops $150), we seem determined to eliminate the jobs that people with no college degree could take. If we head much further down this path I’ll predict problems beyond what we already have.

Chris Petersen, PhD
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

Automation depends upon the type of food and the restaurant. The delivery in a bowl food prep seems ideally suited to serving by order-on-demand. So if the menu is simple enough to allow the consumer to manage the selection, then maybe the technology works.

Then again, Starbucks has a fairly simple menu, and most regular customers order a few select items. Starbucks already has a great phone app for ordering, so why hasn’t Starbucks replaced all of the counter staff in-store?

There is some new research that indicates that replacing wait staff with technology in full-service restaurants actually decreases the average ticket, and may reduce repeat visits.

Would love to see a restaurant that tests both side-by-side … one side with iPads and one side with waitresses. It would be really interesting to see which side fills first, and the average ticket for each side.

Ed Dunn
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

Eatsa resembles the Japanese restaurant ticket vending machine more than the automat as food is cooked to order. The challenge of the “no frontline employee” approach is no different than the self-checkout at the grocer and hardware store — frontline employees will eventually be hired to manage the people trying to operate the self-serve machines.

Frank Riso
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

I would think a combination of servers and automation would work better. I have been to a major restaurant chain and used a tablet device to pay for our meals but used the server to get a recommendation of one meal over another. Even in the QSR sector I would think semi-automation would work better than no staff at all. I assume that workers are available to clean tables and empty trash.

The use of tablets by restaurants and smartphones by patrons will be a part of the industry if it’s not already.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

As someone who grew up in the days of the Horn & Hardart automat, I find the Eatsa intriguing. Based on my research of Millennials, the use of technology to facilitate their interactions is a key differentiator. Millennials prefer text to talking, even with their family and friends. To make it truly consumer friendly, the ability to order and pay via their smartphones is necessary.

Gajendra Ratnavel
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

I first saw a fully-automated restaurant in Japan back in 2009. It was beautiful! It was a sushi place but you could get pretty much any Japanese dish. You sat yourself at a free table. Ordered on the small touch screen. The food arrived on this mobile cart in the aisle. You put your empty plates in a little slit on the side of the table.

This will work for some types of food and I really love the idea. Very efficient and effective. Especially for lunch in business areas.

Ian Percy
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

This may appeal to the lonely and friendless. Ironically it exacerbates their isolation.

“The enemy is us.” Yup, let’s speed up our own emotional and spiritual destruction by using technology as much as possible. No human contact in restaurants. Next, classroom cubicles with programs kids select and listen to on their own, no caring teachers please. On to churches where you put your offering in the slot next to the sin you are most guilty of which will then elicit the sermon you most need to hear.

Can we get any sadder as human beings? I’m totally behind Cathy on this one!

Zel Bianco
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

In a metropolitan area a $6.95 quinoa bowl is not only unheard of, it’s fairly close to the price it would cost to make the same lunch yourself to bring to work. This will certainly have a wide appeal, and keeping the food prepped and the restaurant clean for the many people certain to be coming in for lunch will keep at least a number of people employed (and probably in more enjoyable jobs than those who have to deal with customers).

We need to consider the ways the world is changing and where low-wage workers will find work — but resisting innovation and good ideas is not the way to keep people employed.

Tom Redd
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

Yes, neat idea and it will last just past the interest and cool curve and then die. Food without servers is called delivery. Another attempt for the Millennials’ wallets. They will fall for almost anything and Gen-X and Gen-Z will too!

In the old days they spun these up. They lasted a while and died off.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

Let’s take it one step at a time and also look at why this is going to happen.

  1. A major force is raising the minimum wage. Labor is the biggest controllable cost in running a restaurant.
  2. Reduced labor cost will allow a slower increase in selling price.
  3. We already have a lot of jobs in restaurants that have been shifted to the customer. How many of us fill or own cups and clean off the table?
  4. Next will be robots. They could already do many of the jobs servers do and always show up and don’t ask for increases in wages and benefits.
  5. Will the consumer love them? Most likely only a matter of time.
Laura Davis-Taylor
Guest
Laura Davis-Taylor
6 years 8 months ago

I have absolutely nothing to prove this, but every fiber in my being says that this will not be accepted. It’s sterile, robotic and completely devoid of what physical spaces are supposed to be about, which is human interaction and shared experiences.

Also, look at the food trend emerging in almost every major city, in which communal shared spaces with lots of food options under one roof are supported by large shared eating tables.

One of our mantras at my company is that digital is supposed to make experiences more human, not less human. This is a great example of that.

Kenneth Leung
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

Basically it is a vending machine/automat model. It appeals to a certain segment of the fast food market with little customization. I will need to go try it to find out. I think if you are trying to get a bite to go, doing automated ordering and payment isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What is interesting is that the local Specialty’s bakery has been offering tablet-based ordering for a while. In the morning I see some people using it, but a majority still stand in line to order. For the segment of population that eat to live I suppose it is OK, but personally I like to see a smile in the morning when I am barely awake to order my coffee and pastry.

David Livingston
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

We already have it with Pizza Hut for years. You put in your order on their web site and go pick it up. This is going to catch on more and more. I’ve had my appetite ruined more than once by the unprofessional looks of fast food front line personnel. Restaurants would be better off removing that barrier to their food.

Tim Cote
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

Many people prefer the self checkout to a human checkout. Many people like to order online versus go into a store. This really isn’t that different from a drive-thru without the poor audio. This concept has a shot.

No it will not replace the “let’s go to lunch” event, nor will it replace the need some have for human interaction at lunch, but those are not the targets here. This is about going after the fast feeders with better food at lower prices in larger cities where wage cost is getting pretty high and quality grab-and-go is in medium supply at best.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

I think this self-service fast-food format is overdue and this concept has potential. We are not talking about full-service restaurants where a relationship with the server can arise. We are talking fast-food.

Lee Kent
Guest
6 years 8 months ago
As much as I agree that this will take jobs away from folks who need them, I will also say, if the counter help offers nothing more to me than taking my order, I don’t need them. Now, that’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? The question being, should the counter help be offering more? If they do offer more, will it make me a more loyal customer? What is it worth to me? Here’s a story to ponder. There is a local Subway I go to regularly. There is a large group of regulars who go there and we have all gotten to know each other. We know all the counter help, celebrate their birthdays, new babies, and were sad to say goodbye when one took a new job just last week. It was our last Tuna Friday with her. So what do you suppose caused all these regulars to start going to that Subway multiple times a week? Was it the counter help, the ambiance (SubWay, remember) or the crowd? The chicken… Read more »
Li McClelland
Guest
Li McClelland
6 years 8 months ago

What do you do if your order comes out wrong to the cubicle? To whom do you complain? How do you get the meal righted?

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

A good starting point to determining the viability of this concept might be to examine why the automat idea died (actually, as it was limited to Philly and NYC, why it never caught on in the first place). Some of it my have been due to technological glitches that have been solved—the nickel hungry slots were infamous—or it may have been that a person still needed to be on hand to clean up, keep out vagrants, handle problems with orders etc. so that the supposed labor savings were minimal.

As far as eating at “Eatsa,” I might be willing to give it a try…so long as the toppings completely mask the (non)taste of the quinoa.

Jerry Gelsomino
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

Graphically, really well done. Interesting the first time you eat there. Then it will become cold, clinical. Put some people in there!

Gordon Arnold
Guest
6 years 8 months ago

As entertainment, food and lodging continue to chase the declining discretionary funding market, the need to provide more bang for the buck is relentlessly hampered by gratuities. In the face of these inflationary invoice increases more and more establishments often “included” minimum tips on the bill with encouragement to add more.

The present day applications aimed at allowing the patron to self serve are largely demonstrating slightly lower tabs with more of the total gross expenditure going directly to the house as an increase. These new apps will also have an effect on the bank cards and electronic payment companies stripping them of the lofty service fees from which they get billions of dollars of revenue a month almost for free. Smart retailers will keep the windfall to provide for better employee pay and benefits as well as more returns for the investor(s).

Change is now looking better than ever, at least for the Surfs.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"From NAFTA and the TPP to the coming driver-less Ubers to grocery self-checkout (even if your order tops $150), we seem determined to eliminate the jobs that people with no college degree could take. If we head much further down this path I’ll predict problems beyond what we already have."
"Automation depends upon the type of food and the restaurant. The delivery in a bowl food prep seems ideally suited to serving by order-on-demand. So if the menu is simple enough to allow the consumer to manage the selection, then maybe the technology works."
"I have absolutely nothing to prove this, but every fiber in my being says that this will not be accepted. It’s sterile, robotic and completely devoid of what physical spaces are supposed to be about, which is human interaction and shared experiences."

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