Service of Everything Old is New Again: Automat 2017-Style

February 2nd, 2017

Categories: Restaurant, Technology

 Eatsa back wall turned

Dashing down Third Avenue for a morning meeting I passed a business I couldn’t figure out at first glance. Was it a dry cleaner? No—no counter. Laundry? No. No washing machines–though I wondered what that wall of plastic bins were in the back [photo above]. Anyway, a laundry would be a nutty addition to a midtown neighborhood—43rd and Third Avenue–a block from Grand Central Terminal.

eatsa logo turnedI dropped in later to inquire. I gleaned food was the objective. I didn’t see the name, Eatsa, on the window—it’s on a wall inside. Right now pedestrians see only  a logo–a bowl of food with heat radiating from it [like the one on the white shopping bag, left].Eatsa has been open in NYC a few weeks.

Horn & HardartIn fact, Eatsa is a modern-day automat, an early 20th century concept. In the day, food was sold cafeteria-style from vending machines.

I returned at 1:00 and there was a short line that moved fast. Two young women guided people to iPads on stands [photo below, left]. I swiped my credit card, placed my order by tapping my choice and waited for my name to pop up on a screen on the wall. Soon it did and soon again a number popped up, much like the arrival time of a subway, telling me to go to cubby 19. There, in a cubby with my name on it [photo below, center], was my “No Worry Curry”—stir fried quinoa [pronounced KeyNois if you say the nois part like “nut” in French]; egg, arugula, roasted potato, spaghetti squash, pickled onions, red Thai curry, apple cabbage slaw and curried wonton strips. For $6.95 there was plenty for two. My mouth glowed for a while after lunch…the no-nonsense curry. The wonton strips were a wonderfully crunchy addition.

Eatsa ordering on iPadsThe concept was born in San Francisco. Founder, Dave Friedberg, made his money selling a weather data startup to Monsanto. According to Beth Kowitt in her New York Times article, “the tech-driven approach is a means to support a bigger mission: selling nutritious and sustainable food at a reasonable price.” I predict that eventually, the business won’t even need the ushers—everyone will know how to get their food from systems like this as they do their money in ATM machines.

Kowitt reported that automated ordering means he charges 30-40 percent less than Chipotle, his “fast-casual rival.” Because meat has what Friedberg calls an environmental cost, he doesn’t offer it. “Friedberg’s strategy to stay mum on the company’s environmentally friendly and nutrition bona fides comes down to his ambitions to reach more than the wellness and eco-warrior set. It’s a decision that distinguishes him from the rest of the restaurant industry, which is scrambling—and in many cases stretching—to claim its food is ‘clean’ and healthy.”

He’s invested in quinoa and is exploring other ways to make protein efficiently. “Friedberg, a lifelong vegetarian with a degree in astrophysics, then put together a spreadsheet that calculated the net energy to produce all different kinds of protein. His findings showed that quinoa required the lowest amount of energy to produce. It was also a complete protein and required a lot less water and fertilizer than other crops.”

I wonder if Friedberg knows that his first NYC restaurant is a block from where the last fabled Horn & Hardart stood. Until 1991 it was on 42nd and Third. It was late to the table, opening in 1958 when the first one launched in 1912. Then a cup of coffee cost a nickel. For years all the food cost increments of five cents.

The restaurant ushers said how the right food gets into bowls and to the correct bin is a secret nor would they divulge who or what is behind the wall of cubbies–a person? A robot? My name was also printed on the tape that ensured my container of food stayed closed.

What do you think of ordering food this way? Do you predict that fast food will increasingly be sold like this with minimal staff?

Eatsa door with name on it

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12 Responses to “Service of Everything Old is New Again: Automat 2017-Style”

  1. Hank Goldman Said:

    I remember when there used to be Horn and Hardart’s. There would be people behind the wall of food and you inserted your coins and got your soup or sandwich.

    But as to fine dining, most people, I believe, enjoy the interaction of a wait staff to order their food. Many benefits to it. Not the least of it is the good feeling of being served by a, hopefully, concerned person.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Hank,

    If you have questions about the food or the ordering process it’s nice to be able to ask a person. My guess is that Eatsa will keep at least one “floor walker” around for this reason, to address technological glitches. On the other hand, after hours, there’s nobody in a bank in the ATM section and you can pick up a phone if necessary. It may come to this as fast food customers become increasingly used to do-it-yourself.

    I agree that fine dining requires a person and, as you note, someone who is enthusiastic about the menu. Years ago, in the middle of France, we were dining at a one star restaurant. Our young and zealous waiter was thrilled to practice his English on us. He brought out our main courses that were under bells. After he set the dishes in front of us and as he went to lift the bells in unison, he said, “wait ’til you see this!!!” We were charmed, though we figured the chef/owner might not have been as much.

  3. Martha Takayama Said:

    Today’s post is very much of the moment and wistfully nostalgic. I remember when in high school visiting New York and discovering the amazingly modern concept of the Horn and Hardart automats. The taste or quality of the food was not as important as the thrill of the automation and modernity! It was positively futuristic!

    I think actually the automat food was a slightly less tasty version of the same mid-century, middle -American standard cafeteria food like that offered by Hayes Bickford or Waldorf’s. It came with trays for self-service, lines for receiving servings, cashiers and cleaning staff in rooms filled with Formica tables for solitary or shared dining.

    I didn’t know about this politically correct automated restaurant in NY until I read your article. However, I had heard that here in Boston near Fenway park McDonald’s has an experimental automatic vending machine serving Big Macs on request.

    Both companies seem to want to maximize novelty and speed. The amount of labor saved for the moment continues to be a mystery. It does sound like something that would please the potential sec of labor Andrew Puzder who wants to eliminate workers and their expenses.

    In terms of eating pleasure, all the pronouncements about the minimal environmental conservation in focusing on quinoa does not necessarily make it palatable or even easily digestible for all. It sounds like Kellogg the cornflake story of years ago.

    As for the big Macs which don’t have any pretensions to health benefits or political correctness, if they deliver the same items as served by a cashier they should please their public.

    Lastly, in a world which chips away at our privacy on a daily basis, I find having my name spread all over in public more than a little uncomfortable. What if you didn’t want anyone to know if you were there?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Martha,

    I, too, was concerned about lost jobs but that seems inevitable. I have a friend who refused to use subway MetroCards for years because she didn’t want to put the token-seller out of business and others who wouldn’t use ATM machines for the same reason. I suppose the idea is that the people who had those jobs can be trained to work or repair the robots or make the computer programs for an increasing number of such initiatives. God help people like me who are not good at this kind of work.

    There may be one benefit to this kind of food ordering. Eons ago, when Au Bon Pain was new to NYC and I worked for a company, I’d often volunteer to pick up food for a bunch of people. What drove me NUTS was when my receipt would be perfect–it noted that the ham was to go on a baguette and the Brie on whole wheat. But when I’d get back to the office all the breads were wrong and the brie was Swiss…because the people making the sandwiches didn’t know the difference between breads and cheese. I doubt a robot would make such errors.

  5. EAM Said:

    EAM wrote on Facebook “Interesting idea. Kellogg’s also opened up someting similar in Times Square. I think it’s already taking off.”

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    With just the logo in the window–and a large empty space if you pass by the place before mealtime when it’s filed with people–I was reminded of how Target introduced itself. Before there were stores there were TV commercials with the trademark logo. We wondered then what the target image represented and only later remembered. The bowl logo says food but a pedestrian would still be puzzled. They might wonder, “Is the place finished?” Either the marketing concept to entice foot traffic in the door is to count on New York curiosity or to count on everyone who is anyone already knows about Eatsa from its San Francisco reputation so sit back and relax.

  7. hb Said:

    For some reason, perhaps to ensure its survival, nature endowed mankind not just with the compulsion to seek nourishment, but also with a keen and complex sense of taste. Otherwise, we would not have evolved in the patchwork of dining habits and preferences that we all have.

    In my case, as long as I can remember, what, where and how I eat has been a vital and crucially important part of my reason for being. Put simply, I’m the fussiest of diners, I remember many great meals, and, unfortunately, a number of not so great ones, in vivid detail, and not just about the quality of what I ate and drank, but also the ambiance of the setting, the subtle balance of fine service between the obsequiousness and solicitousness, whether table conversation was stimulating, even how I anticipated having the meal.

    I regret deeply that the speeding up of modern human existence is costing us, I fear, irrevocably, the joy that comes from and with sharing a graciously served and well prepared leisurely meal with friends. We now eat lunch in 20 minutes (The first, and best, job I ever had, had a two and a quarter lunch hour.) and dinner in 40, especially before the theater. (I’d rather eat afterwards.) Even expensive restaurants now serve frozen or microwaved food.

    Your description of a “restaurant” where you buy meals on a machine, sounds even more frightening. If that is what we/I have to look forward to, I’d rather give up meals altogether and eat “vitamin” bars if there are such things. (I know babies have Enfamil; there must be something similar for old people.)

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    hb,

    There are lines outside many of the fast food places in the east 40s–neighbors of Eatsa. Most have few if any places to sit because people in this neighborhood eat in their offices/at their desks or in a conference room or kitchen. It’s not just mealtime that has shrunk; so has the time people have to complete a project so those mid-day hours are crucial. Plus they are expected to be available, especially during business hours.

    Eatsa isn’t supposed to take the place of fine dining any more than the automat. And the food was tasty–certainly better than a bad sandwich with cheap ham and a transparent slice of chalk-like cheese made at a bad deli.

    We’re lucky in NYC. There still are countless restaurants with foreign chefs cooking ethnic food. These may not be the kind of places you had in mind that cost $300/pp before tax for memorable evenings. The concern, of late, is that if travel bans continue, keeping out entire populations the current administration finds objectionable for any number of reasons, beginning with insufficient obeisance to DJT’s “spectacular” inauguration numbers, we may find ourselves in a sad state where succulent foreign-inspired food is concerned.

  9. David Reich Said:

    I passed by the place after you wrote about it. The food may be great and cheap, but it looks like it could be a bank ATM space rather than a food place. I prefer the interaction with a real person, which is why I usually go to tellers rather than the ATM, except after-hours. Plus, it helps keep tellers at work.

    Millennials probably won’t care, since they are used to everything being done electronically and anonymously. Not so, this boomer.

  10. jmbyington Said:

    David,

    I noticed people of all ages in Eatsa but wouldn’t be surprised if after the newness wares off millenials are the mainstay.

    There was a hospital room like atmosphere….or maybe the morgue, especially before lunch when nobody is in there. I’ve been watching too much NCIS but the cubbies might be holding bodies, at least as seen from the street.

    I rarely go to bank tellers but am glad they are there when I need them.

  11. Lucrezia Said:

    Sounds like a fine idea, but must walk on. No meat? No eat!

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    The founder doesn’t emphasize this just so people give the concept a try. What I ate was tasty and filling. I didn’t miss meat and I’m no vegetarian. A billion years ago I attended a birthday celebration in a lovely restaurant [that no longer exists]. It had a famous chef and the food was excellent. One of the menus was vegetarian and one of the people at the table selected it. I had a few tastes and was taken aback at how good the food tasted.

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