Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Ready or not, robot restaurants are here

Washington Restaurant Market Watch: Ready or not, robot restaurants are here https://wahospitality.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/robot2015-AsiaCES-940x198.jpeg

By Paul Schlienz

It’s not exactly the Jetsons, but it’s definitely a peek into the future.

A waitstaff is a distant memory and iPads are everywhere in a new San Francisco restaurant where guests can order, pay and eat without the slightest bit of human contact. Due to its futuristic approach, it’s become known as the “robot restaurant.”

Eatsa, the restaurant in question, is the first outlet in a company with ambitions to become a national chain. It is nearly fully automated. Eatsa has no waiters or order takers behind a counter. In fact, Eatsa has no counter.

Although people are working behind the scenes at Eatsa, helping to prepare the food, these human employees may only be a temporary holdover from a more labor intensive restaurant model. Indeed, plans are in the works to fully automate the food preparation process if turns out to be less expensive than using human workers.

With ever rising costs of running a restaurant, automation that helps cut back on expenses may gather steam as a model for the future.

“I would call it different than a restaurant,” David Friedberg, the software engineer who founded Eatsa, told the New York Times. “It’s more like a food delivery system.”

The concept of a restaurant with minimal employees, much automation and no contact between restaurant staff and guests is not completely new. Anyone who has ever traveled in the Netherlands will have almost certainly encountered the country’s many automats – waiterless restaurants that are a cross between a cafeteria and a vending machine. Nothing new with this concept. These automats, which were also once common in the United States, have been around, in various forms, since the 1890s.

Eatsa, however, takes the automation concept to the next level.

Guests approach a flat-screen monitor, browse a menu of eight quinoa bowls, each costing $6.95, approach an iPad, tap in their order, customize it and pay. Their names, taken from their credit cards, appeared on another screen. When a food order is ready, a number shows up next to it, corresponding to a cubby where the food will soon appear. The cubbies are behind transparent LCD screens that go black when the food is deposited. Thus, no human involvement is visible. With two taps of the guest’s finger, the cubby opens with the food waiting.

Customer reaction seems largely positive.

One guest, Rajiv Anand, told the Independent that he was dazzled by the concept’s “amazing execution”.

Another guest found the reality of the robot restaurant to be different than what she had expected.

“Before arriving at Eatsa, I had hoped telepresence robots or the lifelike animatronics at Disney World would serve me,” Melia Robinson wrote in Tech Insider. “You will not be ‘served by robots’ at Eatsa; don’t let Twitter tell you otherwise. Instead, the dining experience is an extremely self-sufficient one. So, if you’re in a rush and crave wholesome food at an affordable price more than human contact, Eatsa is the place for you.”

Ready or not, the robot restaurant does seem like a concept we’re likely to see more of in the near future. And many people definitely are ready for it.

“What percent of our currently human interactions are going to remain human as technology really advances?” Andrew McAfee, co-founder of the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy and co-author of The Second Machine Age, mused in the New York Times. “I think for a lot of the meals I’m going to want to eat out in five years, if I don’t deal with a person, that’s not going to be a net negative for me at all.”

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