Like most everyone, one of the reasons I love going to New York City is the food.
And after all, why not? The variety is endless, and every meal brings a chance to eat somewhere (and something) amazing. In just one three-day trip to the Big Apple this week, I got to eat dinner at America’s best pasta restaurant, have lunch in the middle of Grand Central Station, and grab breakfast at one of the city’s best cafes with longtime former editor of Food and Wine, Dana Cowin.*
But the meal I got most excited about was a $10 Bento Bowl I had at eatsa. That’s because while I’d written a bunch about the quinoa-centric, tech-heavy restaurant startup, I’d yet to eat there, so I was intrigued to see what it was like to eat with a completely automated the front-of-house experience.
Here’s a quick recap of my experience:
The Walk-In Experience: When I walked into the Madison Avenue eatsa, it was moderately crowded. At 3:30 in the afternoon it was late for lunch, so I’d expect even bigger crowds during lunch hour.
This location was loud. Of course, everything seems to be bustling in the middle of Manhattan, but this eatsa location was definitely louder than most fast food or fast casual restaurants I’ve been to, in no small part due to the loud music playing over the speakers.
I also noticed an eatsa employee in the lobby. I found this interesting because I wasn’t sure if anyone ever saw an employee when dining at eatsa.
The Order Experience: The order experience is straightforward. Before I could peruse the menu on one of the 8 or kiosks, I was asked to swipe a credit card. I was then given a choice of pre-made bowls or the option to build my own custom bowl.
I found the menu simple and easy to understand. Once I chose a Chef’s bowl, I added a beverage and paid. The total price for my bowl was under ten bucks.
Wait and Pick Up: After checkout, my name soon appeared on a big screen above the wall of cubbies.
When my food was ready, the screen told me which cubby from which to pick up my meal. The total wait time was less than five minutes. When I picked my meal up, both my bowl and drink were there. However, my dining companion’s drink was missing, so he had to ask the eatsa employee to radio to the back and have them put a drink in the cubby.
How Was The Food?: You should know this: the food at eatsa is really good. I have to admit I wasn’t sure how much I would like a quinoa-centered meal, but the bento bowl I ordered was fresh, crispy and most of all, delicious. My friend Aaron Cohen ordered the hummus and falafel bowl and found it equally tasty.
After eating at eatsa, here are my takeaways:
The whole experience was very low friction: Eating at eatsa is just really, really easy to do. I walked in, ordered and started eating in about 5 minutes. I think for lunch customers in busy cities or corporate dense suburbs, eatsa is perfectly optimized for quick pick-up-and-go lunches.
Price-value exceeds most restaurants. The food quality and taste are extremely high for the price. My meal was under ten bucks, lower than average when compared to pretty much any chain restaurant.
It’s not all robots…yet. In a way, I was happy to see a human employee in the lobby of eatsa. It became apparent with my friend’s missing drink why eatsa would need to have someone in the front of the house to answer questions and solve problems.
The mystery is part of the allure. Since we’re early in the robot-restaurant revolution, people are naturally curious about how the restaurant works. When I asked the young woman working up front what went on in the back of house, she said, “some people say it’s robots” with a twinkle in her eye and left it at that.
This is the future of fast food and fast casual. As CEOs from fast casual chains like Buffalo Wild Wings wring their hands about the future, eatsa is busy creating a new template that leverages automation to bring a high-quality, low-friction food experience to the consumer. While I don’t think all restaurants will automate the front-of-house like eatsa – after all, no one can replace a great maître d’ or the ambiance of a cool coffee shop with touch screen kiosk – I have no doubt that what eatsa has created is a glimpse into the future.
*Yes, that’s a humble-brag, as I’m a fan of Dana’s and you should be too (you can check her podcast here). And no, a Dana Cowin is not included with every meal at High Street on Hudson.