iEatery takes on fast food 

New San Francisco restaurant feeds a need

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Sometimes you just want to grab a quick bite. You don't want to sit down, or have a conversation with anyone — you just want a healthy meal and to get back to what you were doing.

It seems as if I'm not the only one who feels that.

Last month, San Francisco welcomed a new automated eatery, whose food is based on quinoa. Yes, quinoa.

The restaurant, named Eatsa, offers super-fast, healthy quinoa-based meals for US$6.95. Ordering is done via iPad with a credit card — no cash taken — and customers pick up their meal from a wall of machine cubbyholes.

Not surprising, given the set up, that the people behind the idea are brand and data guys.

The company undertook a roughly two-year process of collecting and analyzing data on consumer taste preferences, and engineering a taste experience — naturally, and without excessive fat, sodium, or sugar — with the addictive qualities of the best fast food.

There are eight signature combos featuring quinoa that's toasted, stir-fried, or turned into stuffing and combined with vegetables and sometimes cheese. For example, the Burrito Bowl has guacamole, salsa fresca, queso mexicano, asada portabello, grilled corn, warm lemon-herb toasted quinoa, tortilla chips and seasoned pinto beans, while the Bento Bowl has stir fry-style quinoa, edamame, crispy wonton strips, teriyaki sauce, miso portabello and apple-cabbage slaw.

Did I mention they were US$6.95?

Then you can add any additional ingredients — like cheese, to a dish that doesn't already include it.

According to FastCompany.com Scott Drummond, Eatsa's chief strategy officer and cofounder, CEO and co-founder Tim Young, and their lead investor, David Friedberg — who in 2013 sold his climate-prediction startup, the Climate Corporation, to Monsanto for about a billion dollars — are on a path to remove the human interaction in the process wherever possible.

"We're using data science to drive the whole Eatsa experience," Drummond said on the website recently, adding that it is all about efficiency.

While some may bemoan the loss of jobs should this model take off, Drummond counters with the idea that workers will be needed to create the technology for this type of endeavour. And cooks/chef's will probably always be needed.

The use of technology will also mean that the eatery will learn about its customers. Do they always order the same dish? Do they like to be adventurous? Perhaps the screen will suggest a meal?

Cutting people out of the counter service at fast food was not the primary goal of the outlet though.

The company's founders are intent on moving the food conversation around protein away from meat for the health of the planet.

"We are really intent on solving big, scary challenges," Drummond told FastCompany.com. "The world desperately needs alternative sources of protein that are affordable and more sustainable than meat."

Friedberg, a lifelong vegetarian and passionate apostle of quinoa, told the New York Times that quinoa "is a much more efficient way to deliver protein to people than animal protein."

"The objective is over time we want to automate more and more to increase speed and reduce cost, so we create a food product that's much cheaper and also happens to be healthy."

While it is unlikely we will see anything like this in Whistler in the short term, there is no denying that automated eateries have their place — quick, efficient, tasty, affordable — just what's needed when there is fresh powder to enjoy.

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