Unbeatable loyalty programs. Fresher ingredients. Lower prices. A funnier spokesperson. These challenges are table stakes for restaurant marketers. Pretty standard stuff, and with the right mix of strategy, product and media, you can remain reasonably competitive in the marketplace. That’s the good news.
The bad news? Robots.
Automation + Quinoa = Your New Competition
Meet eatsa, the latest in restaurant model innovation that brings together extreme automation and an all-vegetarian menu to provide diners with a completely frictionless (and nearly humanless) quick service restaurant experience. Founded by software and brand vets Scott Drummond and Tim Young, with the support of ex-Google exec, David Friedberg, Eatsa started in San Francisco and has expanded locations in Berkeley, D.C., and NYC in less than 2 years.
The experience is more like getting a ticket for the subway than ordering lunch. Eatsa has traded the typical QSR customer interface of cashiers, semi-open kitchens and drive-thrus with concierges (actually, one “concierge” per location, the only visible employee), kiosks and personalized LED cubbies. No view back to the kitchen. No actual human interaction necessary, unless you want it. All this culminating in very fast (each order usually takes under three minutes) and inexpensive meals for diners (reportedly, breakfast for around $3 and lunch / dinner for no more than about $8).
Here’s how eatsa describes itself on its LinkedIn page:
At eatsa, we are motivated to solve big challenges in how the food industry provides better food to more people. We believe that access to nutritious food is something everyone deserves and that technology innovation is the means by which you accomplish that radical change.
An innovative model, cost efficiency, and a strong brand position. Feeling threatened yet?
But People Think It’s Weird, Right?
Nope, not really. For millennials, the obvious consumer target, the reviews are largely positive. A quick survey of Yelp reveals that all but one location have a star rating of 4 or higher on a 5-star scale.
Mridula from Washington D.C. gave it 5 out of 5 stars:
“Such a cool new idea! Love the automated interface.. very cool concept! And the food was good too! Two thumbs up!”
“And the food was good too”? Is it possible that we’ve reached a place in dining where the actual product people are paying for is secondary to the experience? I wouldn’t go that far, but the fact that eatsa has taken the traditional QSR concept so far out of the box (or brown paper bag) is certainly something to take note of. And exploit.
What’s A Marketer To Do?
While the eatsa model is novel today, most experts believe they are paving the way for a more automated future for QSRs and other concepts alike. So even if you aren’t compelled to take action today, evolving consumer demand will almost certainly make this your and your operation teams’ problem in the years to come.
The way I see it, you have two choices:
That’s it. You can either take the path that eatsa has forged and figure out a way to apply it to your business or do a 180.
Conforming means taking the pillars of eatsa’s model - automation, speed, convenience - and figuring out what piece your brand can authentically own and communicate to consumers. While you more than likely won’t provide eatsa’s humanless experience for diners anytime soon, there is a very good chance that your restaurant brand offers it’s own version of “frictionless experience.” Maybe it’s a highly customizable menu, ordering kiosks or a grab-and-go lunch offering. If that’s the case, great! Highlight these millennial must-haves in your marketing and showcase what you have to offer.
Rebelling, on the other hand, means you take a stand against everything that is eatsa and commit. Community, transparency and handcrafted preparation are all meaningful levers for customer satisfaction and things that an automated model simply can’t claim. Differentiate your brand from the evolving marketplace and focus on attracting consumers who value food and experience that require humans for success. In an age where your brand must stand for something, it might just make the most sense to buck the trend.