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The Eatsa location on New York's Madison Avenue. Photo by Paul Wagtouicz courtesy of Eatsa

San Francisco’s Favorite Quinoa Spot Is Taking on New York

Dec 13, 2016

The future of fast food may very well have arrived in New York City—and its premise is built on quinoa and automation.

Eatsa, a nascent restaurant chain that got its start in San Francisco last year, is set to launch its sixth location Wednesday—this one near Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

Despite its small footprint, Eatsa has garnered outsized buzz for the novelty of how its restaurants sell and deliver customers their food: Diners place their orders and pay on iPads, then pick up their meal in cubbyholes with doors doubling as digital screens displaying order numbers. If you’re looking for a little human interaction, go somewhere else. The whole process is designed to take about 90 seconds.

The robotic system may sound contrived and gimmicky, but for Eatsa founder Dave Friedberg, the tech-driven approach is a means to support a bigger mission: selling nutritious and sustainable food at a reasonable price.

“In order to eat healthy and environmentally conscious, you’re paying a huge premium in dollars and time,” says Friedberg, a tech industry veteran. “I don't think those trade-offs are needed if you’re smart about technology.”

The automated ordering system lets Eatsa cut down on its labor and real estate costs, as well as push through some 600 to 700 orders an hour. Friedberg says that formula is the reason he can charge about 30% to 40% less than for a meal than fast-casual rival Chipotle (cmg).

Besides price, an even bigger point of distinction between Eatsa and Chipotle is that Friedberg’s chain doesn’t serve meat, which has a high environmental cost. Instead, all Eatsa dishes are centered on quinoa, the high-protein seed for which Friedberg has become an apostle of sorts.

Unlike Chipotle, which markets what it calls its “food with integrity,” Eatsa doesn’t advertise itself as healthful or sustainable. Friedberg’s strategy to stay mum on the company's environmentally friendly and nutrition bona fides comes down to his ambitions to reach more than the wellness and eco-warrior set. It's a decision that distinguishes him from the rest of the restaurant industry, which is scrambling—and in many cases stretching—to claim its food is “clean” and healthy.

Friedberg says the vast majority of people claim that they want healthy and sustainable food, but when it comes time to pick a restaurant or a meal, consumers will always prioritize taste, price, and speed—in that order.

Food with labels like organic and natural has simply become another luxury good in which people are coughing up more than a product's true value, Friedberg says. “You’re paying for privilege and brand and label that makes you feel good and better about yourself,” he adds, “but doesn't actually affect the two things that matter most which is your health and the environment.”

Those food labels—especially ones like vegetarian—can also end up alienating consumers, who don’t want to identify with the corresponding lifestyle. Eatsa’s chemists, food scientists, and sensory analysts are therefore tasked with making sure dishes don’t leave carnivores feeling like they’re missing out.

Much of his culinary team's work centers on creating umami flavor, which Friedberg says is missing in a lot of vegetarian food. Umami is one of the five tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, and salt are the other four) and is the savory taste pervasive in meat. Friedberg says that 80% of customers who were unfamiliar with Eatsa’s products didn’t realize they were vegetarian after they ate them. “If you tell people there’s no meat in the food, than they’re not inclined to go into the restaurant,” he says. “If it’s healthy they think low taste profile.”

Friedberg’s quinoa-centered approach evolved after he sold his weather-data startup Climate Corporation to agricultural giant Monsanto in 2013. There Friedberg observed that most farmers plant corn and soybeans because they make can make the most money through those crops, in large part because of their role as animal feed that supports humans’ massive appetite for meat.

Friedberg calculated through his own independent research that 44 trillion calories of food are grown every year. Humans consume only 18 trillion of them, he says, which means that we’re converting those calories down by about a factor of three. Many of those calories are flat-out wasted, but a good chunk of the down conversion comes from the process turning corn and soy into animal protein. “There’s a significant cost to that,” Friedberg says. “If we didn’t eat as much meat then in theory those calories could be used in a more efficient way.”

Friedberg, a lifelong vegetarian with a degree in astrophysics, then put together a spreadsheet that calculated the net energy to produce all different kinds of protein. His findings showed that quinoa required the lowest amount of energy to produce. It was also a complete protein and required a lot less water and fertilizer than other crops.

In addition to Eatsa, Friedberg is pushing quinoa through a company he acquired called Northern Quinoa Production Corp., which contracts with local farmers in Canada to grow the crop with its proprietary seed. His ultimate goal is to help turn quinoa into a staple like rice.

Beyond his quinoa projects, Friedberg is exploring other ways to make protein more efficiently—all focused on the intersection of software, biology, and chemistry. For example, he’s an investor in Clara Foods, which is working on making egg proteins through yeast rather than chickens.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “what you’re trying to do is take sunlight and produce the most amount of calories and nutrients possible for that acre of land.”

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