San Francisco’s Newest Fast Food: Healthy, Cheap and Served by Robots

At Eatsa, the servers aren't human. They run on electricity and live in a closet.

At Eatsa, the servers aren't human. They run on electricity and live in a closet. (Christina Farr / KQED)

A new fast food chain called Eatsa aims to deliver a healthy, tasty meal for under $10. The catch? Meat-lovers will need to forgo burgers and carnitas burritos in favor of quinoa, a protein-filled grain crop that looks a bit like couscous.

Last week, I stopped by the downtown San Francisco location (121 Spear Street) for a tour of the facility before its official opening on August 31st. What immediately stood out to me is the clean look of the place, which resembles an Apple Store in its design, with the row of white tablet devices where diners can place their order.

Eatsa is the latest restaurant to experiment with virtual alternatives to wait staff. After you place an order at a kiosk, you pick it up a few minutes later behind a glass door or “cubby.” The only humans in sight are the concierges, who can answer questions that you may have about the software, and the dozen or so staff in the kitchen.

Across the country, restaurants are looking for innovative ways to keep humans out of the picture. But what’s unique about Eatsa is the focus on health and taste. It’s a fully-automated experience, so Eatsa can afford to offer high-quality food for less. Workers’ salaries account for about 30 percent of the restaurant industry’s costs.

The team spent over two years rigorously testing the texture of the sauces and the grain to optimize the taste. Eatsa will also offer a range of beverages, which are sugar-free or low in sugar. Eatsa plans to open two more locations in the coming months, including a restaurant in Los Angeles.

Healthy by Accident

What stood out to me is Eatsa's clean design and its focus on health
What stood out to me is Eatsa’s clean design and its focus on health (Christina Farr / KQED)

Eatsa’s team, led by Scott Drummond and Tim Young, are hoping to attract health-conscious types with its hearty salads and quinoa bowls stuffed with green beans, avocado, and root vegetables. The average meal will set you back about 500 calories, which is far lower than most fast food alternatives.

The team also has its eye on busy professionals in the Financial District who don’t particularly care about eating healthy, but are looking for a quick and tasty meal that will last them through dinner.

“We want to help people get healthy almost by accident,” said Dave Friedberg, the chief executive officer of Climate Corp, a Monsanto-owned company, who is one of Eatsa’s main backers. On the side, Friedberg has invested in a number of Bay Area-based food-technology startups, including Clara Foods, which is developing an egg-free egg white.

According to Friedberg, a meal is slightly cheaper than Chipotle, which may appeal to cash-strapped people who work in the area (in fact, the price of a burrito bowl and quinoa bowl are roughly equitable at just under $7, although the latter contains about half the calories).

“Quinoa is definitely one of those foods that has become really popular lately, but this one actually has some real science behind it,” said Jennifer Gibson, a San Francisco-based nutritionist who works at Vida, a health coaching app.

Investor Dave Friedberg gave me a tour of Eatsa, a healthy fast food restaurant opening at the end of the month
Investor Dave Friedberg gave me a tour of Eatsa, a healthy fast food restaurant opening at the end of the month (Christina Farr / KQED)

Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning it contains the nine amino acids our body needs. It’s also gluten free, and has a low glycemic index compared to a lot of other grains. “Let’s put it this way,” said Gibson. “It’s one of the few foods I would bring to the desert island.”

That all sounds well and good, but I have been feeling guilty about eating quinoa since 2013. A series of articles claimed that global demand for the superfood had put it out of reach for those living closest to where it’s traditionally been grown. But NPR interviewed farmers in subsequent months who denied that they could no longer afford the staple crop. They were still eating quinoa, and accessing other healthy foods, including tomatoes and veggies.

In fact, quinoa can grow in diverse conditions and requires very little water to grow, said Friedberg, which makes it a valuable crop to feed a growing population. “Quinoa is truly a superfood.”

  • lalala

    Nobody is bothered by the fact that human workers are being displaced by robots to keep costs down?

    • csuwldcat

      Nope. Are you bothered that cars put buggy whip craftsmen out of business? Government sure isn’t bothered, they’ve even passed Robotics & Automation Stimulus laws that artificially increase human labor costs and drive conversion to automated labor – some have given these laws the nickname “minimum wage”.

    • iquack

      Well, those nitwits forcing a $15 minimum wage for unskilled people are getting what they ask for: FEWER ENTRY LEVEL JOBS.
      When are leftist Democrats going to enroll in Economics 101, and learn how the economy works?

  • Please_Stop

    Place looks too sterile.

    • Shirley Freeman

      You mean clean?

      • Please_Stop

        Try the dictionary sometime.

        c : lacking in stimulating emotional or intellectual quality : lifeless

        Sigh.

        • Shirley Freeman

          No, I meant CLEAN. Perhaps you need to use that dictionary to look up the meaningS of sterile…..Thanks for the English lesson.

          • Please_Stop

            If you take the time to use the dictionary there are multiple meanings for words.

            You are welcome for the English lesson.

            Also, try reading comprehension to understand context.

            Sigh.

          • Shirley Freeman

            1.
            making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; overbearingly assuming; insolently proud:

            2.
            characterized by or proceeding from arrogance, or a sense of superiority, self-importance, or entitlement:

    • csuwldcat

      Maybe they’ll add one of those rubber cockroaches stores sell around Halloween, to add character and de-sterilize the place a bit.

    • mzungu

      More like bleak. Remind me of that “Chestnut Tree Cafe” in the movie “1984”. 😛

  • Commnt8r

    Kind of reminds me of the old fashioned automats!

  • Brad Campbell

    1. There does not seem to be robots involved in any way.

    2. As for the employee cost, they will have the same number of employees as every other order-at-the-counter restaurant. Nothing new there.

    • tom_merle

      Not strictly true. Order at the counter restaurants of any type always have humans manning the cash register and getting drinks + .

  • mogden

    Fantastic job, progressives! You have made the lives of well paid robotics engineers much better, while making it harder for teenagers and the low skilled to start gaining employment experience. Pat on the back all round.

    • csuwldcat

      “Fantastic job, progressives!” you have passed Robotics & Automation Stimulus laws that artificially increase human labor costs, driving conversion to automated labor. (aka: minimum wage mandates)

  • E and Sam

    A main backer is a Monsanto company? Is their “healthy” food organic or local or is it GMO? Leave it to Monsanto to destroy the crops and lives of small farmers all over the world, wreak havoc on the environment, replace humans with robots, and pretend they care about your health.

    • Adam D

      One of their backers is the CEO of Climate Corporation, which is owned by Monsanto. But Monsanto has nothing to do with this place (at least that’s what the article says)

  • Monica Pineda

    did you check to see if they are non-GMO they are Monsanto owned 🙁

    • Adam D

      Read the article again, one of their investors is the CEO of Climate Corporation which is owned by Monsanto. I don’t believe that Monsanto itself invested in the company, just someone who works for them.

  • mzungu

    No need to interact with them lowly minimum wage workers any more. Woohooo… 😛

  • Swag Valance

    Quinoa is also a fad of our endless attention-deficit appetite for foreign wonderfood “secrets”

    • Bill

      It beats the hell out of kale.

  • Tyler Kellogg

    Interesting concept! Those look like E La Carte’s Presto terminals that they have at Applebee’s. Add some robots and your cost structure is unbeatable.

  • Maureen Rowland

    We humans should definitely opt out then. Kind of skeezy how they call it technology and automation when really they are training the customer to wait on themselves. You are supposed to feel all savvy and smart if you comply.

  • iquack

    With nitwit leftists parading around with signs advocating a $15 minimum wage, it’s a sure thing that fast food automation will accelerate rapidly.
    I like quinoa, so might try EATSA’s offerings.

  • Jeff K.

    Is this supposed to be something new and innovative?

    I’m from Pennsylvania, so I’ve been ordering food by touchscreen at Wawa for years. Basically the only difference here is they’ve put a wall between the customers and the employees so the pretentious hipsters who patronize the place won’t have to look at the poor, working class people making their food.

  • Teto85

    Updated Automat.

  • Annalee Archie

    Annalee from eatsa here – we are excited to open the first location and work with the community on making it even better. I wanted to follow up on some of your questions below.

    We’re excited to have David Friedberg as one of our many investors, however to be clear we are not affiliated with Monsanto, nor are they one of our backers. Our goal is to make delicious, nutritious food more accessible to the community by setting an unprecedented price point and creating an order / pick-up experience that is incredibly convenient and fast.

    We hope to see you all at our flagship soon to experience eatsa first-hand!

  • robertjberger

    Just a modern version of the Automat from the early 20th century https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horn_%26_Hardart

  • worldnick

    Two words. “Drive Through”

  • BillPasadena

    It took the government forcing a higher wage on employers to insure that my order isn’t screwed up by minimum wage employees.

  • I don’t believe that this kind of food can be healthy and daily meal. jacklistenscom.net

Author

Christina Farr

Christina Farr (@chrissyfarr) is the former editor and host of Future of You. She was previously with Reuters, covering digital health and Apple and before that, she reported for Venture Beat. Christina was born and raised in London and has graduate degrees from University of London and the Stanford School of Journalism. Farr’s work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Bay Citizen and SFGate.com. She has appeared as a featured expert on NBC, ABC and Reuters TV, among others, and frequently speaks at health and technology conferences. She is also co-founder of Ladies Who Vino, a networking group for women in technology and business.

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