Before there were fast-food restaurants, and long before there was fast-casual, there was a dining experience that was faster and casual-er than anything that would follow it. The automat, the original server-less restaurant, took the logic of the vending machine to a social extreme: It offered, generally, a wall of small cubbies that contained food both fresh and less so, prepared by unseen humans. Patrons could drop a few coins into the slots, and out would pop a cheeseburger or a tuna salad or a candy bar, instantly and readily and just a little bit magically.
Automats were convenient and fast and, for a time in U.S. history, extremely common; the main thing about them, though, was that they were extremely cheap. They were places you went, generally, when you had no place else to go, and were particularly popular in cities, providing sustenance to laborers and artists. Neil Simon once called the automat “the Maxim’s of the disenfranchised,” which sums the whole thing up pretty well. For most of American history, the dining-out experience has been closely tied with the social experience of being served; take away the servers, and what you were doing was less “dining” than simply “eating.”
Today, of course, automats have all but disappeared—victims, for the most part, of the quick rise of fast food. Except: They may be coming back. We might be seeing a renaissance of the automat—one aimed, this time, not at the poor, but at the rich. This week sees the opening of Eatsa, a San Francisco restaurant that claims to be “fully automated.” The ordering takes place via iPad; the picking up takes place via a wall of glass-doored cubbies. The food—all served in bowls—is vegetarian, with quinoa as its base; customers can order standard concoctions like the “burrito bowl” and the “bento bowl,” or they can customize their own.
Eatsa, contra its branding, isn’t actually “fully automated.” The food, of course, still has to be prepared by human hands; it’s just that the messy business of the prep and assembly is conducted behind the scenes, preserving the automat-esque illusion of magic. The core premise here, though, is that at Eatsa, you will interact with no human save the one(s) you are intentionally dining with. The efficiencies are maximized; the serendipities are minimized. You are, as it were, bowl-ing alone.
That in itself, is noteworthy, no matter how Eatsa does as a business—another branch is slated to open in Los Angeles later this year. If fast food’s core value was speed, and fast casual’s core value was speed-plus-freshness, Eatsa’s is speed-plus-freshness-plus-a lack of human interaction. It’s attempting an automat-renaissance during the age of Amazon and Uber, during a time when the efficiency of solitude has come to be seen, to a large extent, as the ultimate luxury good. Which is to say that it has a very good chance of success.