Even though a quinoa-based vegetarian bowl is not my idea of the ideal workday lunch, I’m excited to check out the restaurant Eatsa the next time I’m in San Francisco. Because there aren’t any people working there.
To be more precise, not any visible ones. There’s a staff of five or six cooks assembling the bowls, but they work completely behind the scenes. The typical customer interacts with zero Eatsa employees on a typical visit: she orders and pays via a smartphone or tablet, then picks up her food from a cubbyhole displaying her name. Prices are low, and initial reviews are quite good.
So is this just an updated version of the old automats, with iPads replacing coin slots, or is it something more? There are indications that Eatsa’s founders want it to be the start of something legitimately new: a close to 100 percent automated restaurant. Food preparation there is already highly optimized and standardized, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the location’s first general manager had a background in robotics.
But the fact that the restaurant’s “front of house” (i.e. the dining area and customer interactions) are already virtually 100 percent automated is more interesting to me than the question of whether the “back of house” (the kitchen) ever will be.
I agree with the second half of that statement, but I’m not so sure about the first. We are a deeply social species, and even an introvert like me enjoys spending time with friends and loved ones in the physical world. I’ve also learnt to value business lunches and dinners (even though I’d rather be off by myself reading or writing) because they’re an important part of how work advances.
But in the great majority of cases, when I’m out I don’t value the interactions with the waiting staff and other service workers. They’re not unpleasant or terribly burdensome, but they do get in the way of what I want from the restaurant experience: to eat well, and to talk to my tablemates. Listening to a recitation of the specials, getting the paper bill and handing off a credit card, learning the server’s name (this happens in America), and so on are distractions from my restaurant experience, not additions to it.
Do most people feel the same, most of the time? I don’t know, and I don’t think there has been any good way of knowing until now because technology wasn’t mature and cheap enough to enable smooth and cost-effective automation of many service interactions.
But now it is, as Eatsa indicates, which is what makes our current era so interesting and uncertain.
So will these industries remain labor-intensive for other reasons — because, for example, most of us actually like interacting with human service industry workers?
I don’t think so. I think that over the next few years we’re going to see the Eatsa model expand widely: to cafés, fast-food outlets, table service restaurants (including some pretty good ones), and many other service establishments. This will happen because it lowers costs for companies and increases quality in the eyes of many customers. Those of us who don’t like automation will still have the option of patronising service businesses with a lot of employees, and also with higher prices.
If this is what happens I don’t think it’ll be destructive at all to our shared humanity; we’ll grab our robo-generated quinoa bowls and iced coffees and, while eating them, talk to our colleagues, friends and families just like we do today. But a much more highly automated service sector will have an impact on job and wage prospects for many, and that is certainly an issue worthy of our attention.
This blog first appeared in FT.com on September 9 here.