In the late 1980s, when I was a summer intern in New York, working in the Daily News Building, the last remaining Horn & Hardart Automat was right around the corner. The cafeteria chain that operated in Philadelphia and New York was in its twilight then, but in the 1930s and 1940s it was hugely popular as a place for good, fast and cheap prepared food. The Automat had no waiters. Instead, you inserted a token or coins into a slot on the wall, opened a little glass door, and took your tuna sandwich or apple pie. Workers constantly refilled the shelves.
Eatsa now is looking to become the modern-day equivalent of the Automat, driven by modern technology. Customers place their orders on touch-screen iPads or iPhones. No humans take your order or serve you; a half-a-dozen or so people are preparing orders on an automated assembly line behind the scenes. And in minutes your name appears on a food cubbie with your order, a $7 quinoa bowl.
But instead of being horrified, this nearly robotized fast-food restaurant stole my vegetarian heart. Eatsa’s co-founders have ambitious and seemingly virtuous goals: They want to serve healthy food faster and cheaper — and give their items the sort of crave-inducing factor that sends you to the refrigerator late at night. “Healthy food does not have that crave-ability,” said Scott Drummond, co-founder of Eatsa.
The restaurant is owned by Keenwawa Inc., a 30-person company based in San Francisco, and backed by an undisclosed amount of funding from a group of angel investors, including David Friedberg, CEO and co-founder of Climate Corp., which is owned by Monsanto MON, -0.02%
As a vegetarian for most of my adult life, I can attest to challenges around the taste factor. And preparing healthy, fresh meals can also be time-consuming and expensive. So I was impressed that my 527-calorie Mediterranean quinoa bowl arrived in minutes and cost $7. I even was able to request no artichokes. You can pick one of eight different bowls or customize an order, choosing from about 40 ingredients, including portobello mushrooms, arugula, feta cheese and roasted beets.
With so many startups developing apps or services that essentially act as personal valets, summon drivers, or hired assistants for an entitled demographic, it is refreshing to see technology used for good, even if Eatsa has fast-food-chain ambitions. Eatsa’s founders hope to appeal to a broader audience with affordable healthy food. By employing fewer people to lower operating costs, they are able to offer a complete meal at a low price. “This is all about democratizing healthy food,” Drummond said.
Eatsa executives did not disclose much about the technology, except to say it is data-, science- and software-driven. The company will use automation as much as possible to keep costs lower, and the team spent more than a year on scientific research and taste testing to create the menu.
Still, whether the concept will play in Peoria is the big question. The company plans to expand; its next Eatsa location is earmarked for suburban Los Angeles. All of the bowls on the menu use quinoa, an exotic grain for some, as a foundation and chief protein source. And I found the food delicious. But the company’s founders admitted that I am not the customer they worry about. It’s the meat eaters and fast-food junkies, especially those outside of the health-food haven of the San Francisco Bay Area, whom they want to attract.
“We are in downtown San Francisco, [and] we know it’s a unique environment,” Drummond said. It’s worth noting that The Melt, another tech-centric restaurant chain founded in 2011, has added burgers, chicken and salads to its original menu of grilled cheese and soup.
Will Eatsa become the Automat of a new era? It’s too early to say, but it should do something about the name.