Dehumanising dining with fully-automated restaurants

Years ago, dining alone may have felt like something to avoid rather than something to actively seek out. However, this has changed with an increase of restaurant chains that actually prefer you to enjoy their food without interacting with others, including their employees. Eatsa is one of such restaurants, and after initially opening at one location in San Franscisco in 2015, there are now seven Eatsa branches across America. With a vegetarian menu that revolves around one of the most popular superfoods, quinoa, the chain’s modern take on eating out could provide hints as to what the future holds for fast food. With a tagline of “better, faster food”, Eatsa aims to serve only nutritious, vegetarian food as quickly as possible.

This emphasis on efficiency is obvious when looking at the ordering process, which relies heavily on technology. Ordering takes place on a mobile phone or an iPad in-store with a personalised menu according to any past orders. Once ordered, the food is prepared in a hidden kitchen and appears in a unique sort of pigeon hole, showing the customer’s name in lights before opening up and making the food available. The customer then brings their food to an available table, with no human interaction whatsoever throughout the entire process.

Another chain that adheres to this favoured eating in solitude is Ichiran, a Japenese ramen restaurant. Ordering at Ichiran is similar to Eatsa but takes place on a sheet of paper rather than an in-store iPad, possibly because Ichiran was only founded in 1993 . However, one difference between the two chains is that Ichiran actively encourages you to eat alone in order to allow you to focus on their food, something which can be seen by how they name their tables: “flavour concentration booths”.  Sitting by yourself allows you to avoid any interaction which could distract from the food in front of you.

This isolated experience could perhaps be a haven for introverts, allowing many to enjoy their food without awkward social interactions with servers or the need for small talk with a host while waiting for an available seat to appear. But at the same time, would this seemingly harmless trend remove the need for servers in a restaurant setting altogether? If this trend continues and normalises isolated eating, it could have a disastrous impact on the restaurant culture that we know today.

For instance, the elimination of human interaction could lessen the customer’s experience when dining out. The job of a server is more than to simply bring food to and from the tables. A server welcomes customers into the restaurant, making them feel at ease and allowing them to relax into their new environment.

The lack of customer interaction must also be a strange experience for a worker who remains hidden behind a shelf of cubby holes, unsure of whether a customer is enjoying or even appreciating what they have produced. Eatsa does attempt to strengthen the connection between the worker and the customer by asking for feedback on the service, though this feedback may not be likely to make its way to each individual employee.

This ordering system relies heavily on technology and is certainly something that wouldn’t have been possible fifty years ago. As technology continues to advance, will it eventually replace restaurant workers entirely? This new way of dining somewhat parallels the introduction of self-service checkouts in supermarkets. While the system is new, innovative and designed to speed up the transaction, will issues with the technology lead to more frustration than appreciation? Both of these companies offer a rather niche menu, Eatsa’s focusing on quinoa and Ichiran serving only Tonkotsu ramen (a ramen made using a pork based broth). So would it be possible to provide such a quick, automated service while offering a wider menu? Only time will tell.

Image: Intdev

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