It’s a rare day when America’s beleaugered minimum-wage earning fast food workers book a victory in their struggle to sustain their labor-market dominance before the machines inevitably take over.
But as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and other fast-food and fast-casual chains experiment with order kiosks and other technology to automate parts of the food-service process, one small chain that hoped to disrupt with industry by embracing automation is throwing in the towel.
Fully-automated restaurant chain Eatsa is closing five of its locations. One location is closing in Berkeley with an additional two restaurants closing in New York City and two more closing in Washington D.C. – all “prime dining hubs,” according to John Whitefoot.
Eatsa customers order from their smartphones, or at the restaurant’s digital self-serve kiosks. Customers’ retrieve their food from futuristic looking cubbies behind which unseen cooks prepare the meals hidden from sight and aided by robots.
The end result is that customers can buy their meals with hardly any human interaction. And while that might sound like an idyllic restaurant experience (free of cashiers silently judging your meal choices), as it turns out, the concept isn’t so popular in practice.
Though, in a surprise move, the company’s management defended the automation model – and instead chalked the closures up to a failure of quality control.
In a blog post, Eatsa’s management explained that the quick expansion into the four regions did not allow the management enough time to “test and iterate our food product — something that is critical in any restaurant business.”
Reading between the lines, that appears to mean that the restaurant had troubles selling, not only because of its robotic service model, but also because of its mediocre menu. After all, how many quinoa salad bowls can you sell to the locals each day, every day? Even the most loyal fans must seek change every once in a while.
Eatsa’s menu options are limited, consisting of healthy, nutritional foods—mostly salads, rice, and quinoa bowls. The lack of originality and diversity in the menu may have partly been the reason behind Eatsa’s underwhelming sales.
But as Whitefoot observed: “The idea of machines taking, filling, and serving food orders is still a very futuristic idea that the average American is not ready to fully adopt—yet.”
The closures will enable Eatsa, which is (surprise, surprise) based in San Francisco, to focus on its two restaurants in the City by the Bay, where, the company believes, customers should be more amenable to the idea of ordering their food from machines.
In summary, while most economists expect automation will eventually devastate the labor force of the retail or food-service industries, these predictions should come with one important caveat: Companies still need to sell their customers on the idea.