Some of San Francisco’s robot-run restaurants are failing. It could simply be that we still want to be served by humans, not machines.

Customers wait to pick up their Eatsa orders from the automat's futuristic pickup windows in San Francisco in 2016.

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Customers wait to pick up their Eatsa orders from the automat’s futuristic pickup windows in San Francisco in 2016.
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Melia Robinson/Tech Insider

The robot revolution in San Francisco has begun. Or has it?

The tech-centric city has seen an automized restaurant scene in recent years. The idea is that robots could be used to fill repetition-heavy positions that require hours of nonstop work – like line cooking – that could then free up human employees to provide higher quality customer service. Labor costs and, subsequently, menu prices would be lowered, tipping would become obsolete, restaurants could more heavily invest in higher quality ingredients, and profits would increase for business owners in the process – or at least that’s the theory.

It’s a trend seen across the country and the world, but San Francisco specifically has been the ideal market for robot and semi-robot restaurant testing for a number of reasons.

The city’s millennial workforce is busy, which makes a quick automated culinary experience appealing. A harshly visible wealth divide, low wages, and a housing crunch also spell a labor shortage in the 7×7 city, a shortage that could be addressed by placing robots into these roles. And on top of that, venture funding-seeking startups here have long used the streets of San Francisco as an experimental playground, with the city’s occupants as their guinea pigs for testing out what could be promising technology – so much so that it’s grown into a bit of an issue, with the city considering launching an office specifically designed to regulate emerging tech before companies can throw it into public spaces.

The robotic barista at CafeX prepares a coffee order for a customer.

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The robotic barista at CafeX prepares a coffee order for a customer.
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Katie Canales/Business Insider

At San Francisco’s Eatsa automat, you could quickly order and then pick up your $7 quinoa bowls – prepared behind the scenes by unseen employees – through futuristic pickup windows lined against the wall of the restaurant, as Business Insider’s Melia Russell reported. At a Peter Thiel-backed CafeX coffee bar, a jolly-looking robotic arm is the barista building and serving you your coffee order. And at Creator, the Google parent company-backed burger joint of the future, a robot builds your $6 burger from start to finish in five minutes.

Other Bay Area-based automated restaurants like pizza-making and delivery startup Zume, TeaBOT, the ramen vending machine Yo-Kai Express, the Blendid company whose robot will fix you a $6 smoothie, and Chowbotics’ salad-prepping Sally robot round out the region’s autonomous eatery arena.

Visiting one can feel like stepping into a sci-fi flick – being handed a cup of coffee by a robot is a bit of a novelty.

But innovation aside, there are concerns that automation may result in mass unemployment as robots are deployed to fill jobs that humans could occupy. There’s also the longstanding question of whether or not people actually desire human interaction when they’re being served. And even with those questions aside, it turns out that some of these restaurants aren’t surviving.

In July 2019, Eatsa shuttered its San Francisco locations after the company was found to be thousands behind in unpaid rent. It’s since pivoted to restaurant tech and software and rebranded itself as Brightloom, with a new deal with Starbucks announced in 2017. Just this week, CafeX closed its San Francisco locations, though its stations at San Francisco International Airport and San Jose Airport are still open. And Zume, the Softbank-backed startup known for its pizza-making robots, shuttered its pizza business and pivoted into food-truck tech and services in November 2019. Then, in January 2020, the company laid off 400 employees to further cut costs, as reported by Business Insider’s Megan Hernbroth.

A human employee at Creator.

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A human employee at Creator.
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Katie Canales/Business Insider

One of the robot-run restaurants that seems to be doing alright is Creator, which is still humming along since opening in mid-2018. There are “robot attendants” and humans present in most of these restaurants, but there’s more of a human presence in the burger-making robot joint, as The Guardian’s Vivian Ho pointed out. The robot prepares the Creator burger, but humans take your order and perform other tasks. And as SF Gate’s Alix Martichoux writes, the robot restaurants the author visited and enjoyed the most were the ones that involved real-life people.

So there could be multiple reasons why some of them have flopped, but perhaps a straightforward explanation is that we’re simply not ready to be served by robots in lieu of humans.

Here’s what it’s like eating at San Francisco’s robot restaurants, some of which have since failed.


Creator is the world’s first robot-made burger spot. This is what the burger bot looks like.

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The robot at Creator.
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Creator

And this is CafeX’s robot barista. The coffee company’s San Francisco locations are now closed, so you can only check it out at two Bay Area airports.

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The machine in one of CafeX’s now-shuttered San Francisco shop.
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Katie Canales/Business Insider

The same goes for Eatsa — its San Francisco locations gave customers a futuristic dining experience before closing in mid-2019.

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The pick-up windows at Eatsa’s now-shuttered San Francisco location.
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Jillian D’Onfro/Business Insider

Over at Creator, “robot attendants,” or human employees, take customers’ orders on devices. The status of each customer’s order could be tracked on a counter tablet.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

At CafeX, customers ordered at digital kiosks.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

The process was similar at Eatsa — you ordered via a tablet. When Business Insider’s Melia Russell visited in 2016, there were eight bowls to choose from, all priced around $7.

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Tech Insider / Melia Robinson

Source: Business Insider


Once a customer orders, a brioche roll from a local bakery is pushed through an air tube into a chute at Creator.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

It’s toasted, buttered, and is dropped into a to-go container. Ingredients, like smoked oyster aioli, charred onion jam, and “delightful shreds” — not slices — of cheese, are then placed onto the burger, according to the specific customer’s order.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

The Creator bot can have your burger built in under five minutes.

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Melia Russell chowing down on a Creator burger.
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Katie Canales/Business Insider

It was the same deal at CafeX. A $3 cappuccino was delivered via a tiny hatch in no time at all.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider

You received your Eatsa bowl in a similar fashion, via a small locker. The customer’s name appeared on the front of the window, which meant the order was ready for pick-up.

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Tech Insider / Melia Robinson

Eatsa marketed itself as the “future of restaurants.” It may have been a unique, futuristic experience, but as Melia Russell reported, it wasn’t as though a robot was wheeling your order out to you. Unseen human employees worked incognito behind the lockers and deposited food orders while the window flashed black.

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Jillian D’Onfro/Business Insider

Source: Business Insider


Russell said her Balsamic Beets Bowl was hearty and refreshing when she gave it a try in 2016.

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Melia Robinson/Tech Insider

Eatsa, Russell wrote, was perfect for people in a rush who value a wholesome meal at an affordable price more than human interaction.

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Melia Robinson/Tech Insider

Source: Business Insider


But, alas, the company’s restaurants are no more. Eatsa announced in 2019 that it was closing its San Francisco locations to focus on selling its technology to other restaurant brands. It was also revealed that the company owed thousands in unpaid rent.

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Justin Sullivan/Getty

Source: SF Eater


With CafeX, Zume Pizza, teaBOT, and Eatsa now closed, Creator is one of the last automated restaurants left standing in the city.

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Katie Canales/Business Insider