Since the dawn of time, innovators replaced bare-handed human activity first with tools, then with machines. Today’s industry influencers are those ready to take next steps, harnessing robotics to operate businesses with greater precision and efficiency, further reducing human input.

The first automat, called appropriately enough, Automat, opened in New York July 2, 1912, in Times Square. The innovative dining idea was successfully marketed with, “gleaming, newfangled gadgets that dispensed fresh food barely touched by human hands.” At the height of this fast food trend centered in New York, there were 40 Automats. The last one, at East 42nd Street and Third Avenue, closed in 1991.

If you’re old enough to remember the glory days of the Automat, you’ll be happy to know they’re back…in a 21st-century incarnation.

If you’re old enough to remember the glory days of the Automat, you’ll be happy to know they’re back…in a 21st-century incarnation. One new automated dining experience comes to us under the brand Eatsa, currently in San Francisco and Los Angeles and preparing to expand to 10 additional locations.

Like the Horn & Hardart Automats of the early 20th century, the concept behind Eatsa is to serve low-cost fast fresh food without human interaction. And like the Horn & Hardart Automat, Eatsa also features “gleaming, newfangled gadgets that dispense fresh food…”

The key to this brave new world is to find the most effective cooperative relationship between us and our machines.

Eatsa isn’t fully automated, though. Human hands put together quinoa bowls behind a cubby wall where customers pick up their orders. But actually, that human-machine partnership is also trending these days. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, “proposes that human qualities like creativity and empathy, paired with the raw computational power of A.I. can help solve some of society’s greatest problems.” The key to this brave new world is to find the most effective cooperative relationship between us and our machines. Eatsa seems to have a combo that works for its customers.

Co-founders Tim Young and Scott Drummond, “looking to create a convenient, low-cost health food concept, fused advanced technology with the long-abandoned automat format.” Same purpose…different technology. In the older incarnation, nickles and quarters activated delivery, and ultimately that mode of delivery caused its demise since the patented mechanical dispensers accepted only nickels and quarters in their slots.

“We’re using data science to drive the whole Eatsa experience,” chief strategy officer and co-founder Scott Drummond said to Fast Company. “Cashiers won’t be a limitation.” Apparently, neither will coin-operated dispensers.

Many of us crave speed and low-cost, but many of us still enjoy an evening out for fine dining.

Momentum Machines takes a different approach than Eatsa, going for the back of the house instead of the front. “In 2014, the company released a device that essentially worked like a printing press for hamburgers. The robot pressed patties, chopped toppings, and assembled the ingredients into a sumptuous-looking sandwich.” This fall the world’s first robot-powered burger bar opened in San Francisco.

Many of us crave speed and low-cost, but many of us still enjoy an evening out for fine dining. For familiarity if nothing else, we like our humans in the environment. Our objective isn’t speed but a relaxing, elegant evening. While fine dining restaurants probably want to keep workers in the picture for ambiance, even they benefit from robotics. “Maybe they’ll focus still on making the food by hand and focusing on quality ingredients,” says Sarah Smith, a researcher at IFTF’s Food Futures Lab, “but there could be parts of the experience that could have some level of automation.”

Robotics may even enter into some home dining experiences. “The future is served” with Moley Kitchen Robotics. It’s easy to imagine versions of these automated chefs replacing line cooks even in fine dining environments.

The best estimates find that up to 50% of jobs could be automated by the late 2030s, with restaurant workers among the most vulnerable to displacement.

Not only smaller fast food businesses are exploring robotics. McDonald’s, which started with Ray Kroc’s idea of “uniformity in service and quality among all of the McDonald’s locations,” also took next steps toward the future. During the last two years, the company opened the beta version of a fully automated McDonald’s in Phoenix in the hope of opening 25,000 more of them if the test succeeds. The new robots work in harmony at a speed 50 times faster than the average McDonald’s employee, with no chance of error. There, too, robots cooperate with humans who supervise them to make certain all is well.

Data-driven robotics is an area of technology with a big future. Indeed, a lot of what happens in restaurants these days is automated. The best estimates find that up to 50% of jobs could be automated by the late 2030s, with restaurant workers among the most vulnerable to displacement.

Of course, those lower staffing costs will eventually present Americans with a different set of challenges as machines replace the jobs of many people.

The advantages of robotics in the restaurant industry are obvious; robotics mean lower labor costs, uniformity and easy customization to name a few of the benefits often stated.

Of course, those lower staffing costs will eventually present Americans with a different set of challenges as machines replace the jobs of many people. Hopefully, American creativity and innovation will address these issues as effectively as they have the healthy, cost-effective, fast meal or efficient food production in fine dining environments.

In the meantime, coming soon to a location near you…fast casual healthy fresh dining where you can focus on your dining experience and companions, not the waiter or cashier — and even fine dining where unbeknownst to you, robots work swiftly and skillfully to prepare your elegant meal.

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