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

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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."

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