It was a grey midday in midtown, and I had just a few minutes to grab lunch. The usual chain restaurants and delis beckoned, but one sleek, glass-walled storefront stood out. Its interior was bright and colorful, with touchscreen kiosks lining the side walls and a couple of minimalistic tables around the center. A young couple emerged, carrying smartly packaged meals.
It was clearly a place for lunch, but with one hitch—there was no one serving lunch. The only occupants were customers, a large number of them, which I trusted was a good sign, the other being the health department’s sanitary inspection grade posted on the window: A.
Looking through the glass, I spotted a single employee loitering in the center of the room. She seemed oddly superfluous, neither serving lunch, nor taking orders. In fact, her demeanor and inactivity signaled as much—there was no one to serve you here, and if you wanted lunch, you would have to use one of the kiosks. I hesitated at the prospect of navigating this new culinary experience, wondering if it was worth the time and trouble of learning an unfamiliar system. But I was already here, and intrigued, in a way that went beyond mere appetite.
I stepped inside and gravitated to an available kiosk. The touchscreen presented the meal choices, as well as some customization options, and after a couple of clicks and a swipe of my credit card, informed me that my food would be ready shortly. It was strangely empowering. I’d just created, ordered and paid for a new lunch, all by myself.
Of course, I wasn’t actually making the meal. I trusted that someone, somewhere in the back, hidden areas of the establishment, was now doing that. But how would the food be delivered?
My attention turned to the customers waiting in the back of the room, and the wall of clear glass “cubbies” they stood in front of. Every now and then an animated graphic danced across the transparent door of one of the cubbies, like a high-tech cartoon. Entertainment? Branding? Either way, it was diverting. I wondered what kind of digital imaging technology could display animated images on a clear surface.
Meanwhile, above the cubbies a large digital screen showed the names of waiting customers:
I watched as Robert R.’s name and “Cubby 13” lit up onscreen. Simultaneously, on the clear door of Cubby 13, a cartoon curtain appeared, and then rose, as if a miniature magic show were about to start. And then, dramatically, Robert R.’s bowl appeared, center stage.
Anne S., William E., Mr. Q and I watched as Robert R. tapped the door of cubby 13 twice, causing it to open effortlessly. It was an impressive display of automation, but it was only one meal. How long had Robert R. been waiting, and how long would my meal take?
My mistrust faded moments later when Anne S. and William E. received their orders too. The screen filled with new names beneath mine, and I found myself with new company at the wall, watching the digital picture show unfolding on the cubby doors. Clearly some serious planning, thought and technology had gone into creating this whole experience. It wasn’t just an updated automat, with new digital technology. It was a new, streamlined way of choosing, customizing, ordering and receiving your food. All the usual frictions of lunchtime—the waiting in line, the difficulty of customizing your meal, the misunderstood request, the overcharged order—seemed to have been addressed.
If there was any friction, it was self-imposed, by the few inattentive customers who sometimes failed to move as quickly as the technology did. William E., for one, could have taken at least 5 seconds off his retrieval time if he hadn’t been looking at his cellphone when the curtain went up on Cubby 5.
A minute later, “Connie O. / Cubby 8” lit up onscreen. I watched the curtain rise on Cubby 8, then strode to the compartment at what seemed like the appropriate pace to retrieve an automated meal, tapped the door twice, and latched onto the bowl inside. It was mine. I found a table, and sat down to eat, with plenty of time to spare.