How New York Envy Drives On-Demand Startups In Silicon Valley

san francisco

San Francisco is the epicenter of the on-demand startups movement, but what’s new in Fog City is old hat in the Big Apple

If the universe of on-demand startups spawning in San Francisco “change the world” in the way they want to, we’ll all be able to live like people in Manhattan have been living for decades—with easy, inexpensive transportation, on-demand food services, pet care and more.

Here’s how the on-demand economy is trying to turn San Francisco and every major city into New York.

A San Francisco tech startup named Easta is re-inventing the restaurant model. The first location in the Eatsa chain opened in San Francisco and the second in Los Angeles.

Billed as the “restaurant of the future,” Eatsa enables customers to order their meals, pay for them, pick up and eat their food without interacting with a restaurant employee.

The food itself is pure California vegetarian: Everything costs $6.95, is served in a bowl and uses quinoa as an ingredient. All the other ingredients, accept for the use of egg in two recipes, are grain or vegetable-based.

Customers order by poking at an iPad menu. They swipe a credit card to pay. The food appears in a kind of cubby with a glass sliding door. In fact, the most identifiable element of the restaurant is a wall of such cubbies where the food appears.

The purpose of this system, of course, is to make food faster and cheaper.

Welcome to the future? Uh, not really.

The concept was invented in Germany 132 years ago. In the United States, the concept was called the “automat” and Philadelphia got the first one in 1902. Over time, several cities in the United States, Europe and Japan got automats. But in New York, where the first automat opened in 1912, the concept really took off and became an integral part of the city’s culture. A YouTube channel has an entire series showing automats in movies.

A company called Horn & Hardart dominated the New York automat scene. Now mostly remembered by older generations, they became the world’s first “fast food” chain and the world’s largest restaurant chain, serving 350,000 people a day in New York alone.

Just like at today’s Eatsa, New York’s automats featured a wall of cubbies containing food. By placing a nickel (and later more than a nickel) into a coin slot, the door would open and customers could take the food or even a cup of hot coffee. These were basically giant upscale vending machines.

In some ways, automats were more efficient than Eatsa. For starters, they were faster. While Eatsa enables customization of orders, that made-to-order system means customers are standing around waiting for the food to be prepared.

At the automat, a customer could be in possession of their lunch within 30 seconds of walking in the door. Coffee was thrown out after 20 minutes, assuring fresh brew. While Eatsa has two locations for now, Horn & Hardart had 47.

Automats remained a familiar part of the New York scene into the 1970s, but New York’s last Horn & Hardart outlet closed in 1991 according to Wikipedia. Today, the company name survives in a chain of coffee shops in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Florida and Nevada.

Easy transportation

Transportation is the poster child of the on-demand economy. Companies like Uber and Lyft are the best known today, but startups like Hailo, Sidecar, Curb, Flywheel, Summon, Shuddle and others have “driven,” so to speak, the on-demand economy.

Most futurists, including me, believe that car ownership will change. Ride services and eventually self-driving cars will contribute to a trend where fewer people will need to own cars.