image: Tablet Magazine

The topic of technology in restaurants has been stirring up some pretty interesting discussion recently. Touch screens, interactive apps and online ordering have become an increasingly common fixture in fast-casual dining. Meanwhile, new-comers like Eatsa are pushing digital integration to a Jetsons-esque extreme with a dining experience that is almost entirely automated—where customized quinoa bowls magically appear on demand with no human in sight, as if the food itself was constructed from ones and zeroes.

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photo: New York Times

Though operators and consumers alike are showing an appetite for more tech in their diet, there is a growing concern around what this means for the future of food. Will humans in food service go the way of the dodo, or the gas station attendant? Will automated dining change the way we eat forever?

Nope.

Not really.

Look, I love paranoid fantasies as much as the next guy. The first time I ordered a sandwich from a touch screen, I too fast-forwarded to a dystopian future where apathetic humans suckled at the bosom of their robot overlords.

But the reality is that you can’t get a full read on the meaning of a new trend until you understand one important, and often overlooked factor: The need state. In short, the idea that an individual’s desires and behaviors aren’t fixed but fluctuate from one situation to the next.

Consider this case-in-point: Last year, a restaurant client asked us to create some customer personas – basically, to take some demographic and behavioral data and dress it in human skin (not literally). But first, we asked to conduct a few casual interviews with real people that fit those profiles.

One interview was with the spitting image of what the data labeled as a “functional eater,” people for whom food is mere fuel and convenience is king. True to character, our subject shared a daily routine of hastily eating whatever was easy, quick and cheap. He described lunch as a “nuisance” and admitted that, if he could take a pill that provided all his nutrients he would.

And then he paused.

“Wait, would I have to take this pill on weekends too? Cuz, if so, deal’s off.”

He went on to share his Saturday ritual of visiting the farmers market, and how, on the rare occasion when he did cook, he loved experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients. He recounted a memory from a vacation in Italy, where he spent hours savoring a 12-course tasting menu and drinking wine with locals who didn’t speak a lick of English, everyone connecting through the shared language of hospitality.

Inside this “functional eater” was a frustrated foodie handicapped by his circumstances. The picture painted of him by the data was incomplete. He was interested in eating well but, in his current need state, other needs (namely saving time and money) took precedence.

The brilliance of something like Eatsa (who, full disclosure, was a client of ours) is how it solves this tension. Sure, a lot of the buzz is over the futuristic delivery system but over-time that novelty will fade. And under Eatsa’s hi-tech veneer, it’s answering a real need — bringing fresh, healthy food to people pressed for time and disposable income.

But let’s not forget that hospitality too is a need; one that lives deep in our DNA. If the predictions are true, and technology takes on more of the heavy lifting in certain food service environments, one possible byproduct would be a greater appreciation for good hospitality. The question will become how can human interaction add value and meaning to the experience — beyond giving you correct change and determining if you “want fries with that.”

What if there was some truth to my vision of the future, but instead of robot overlords, we’re curled up in the bosom of our fellow man?

Eh, scratch that. Still weird.