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I Tried It

At this fast food restaurant, machines do the cooking

Three minutes to prepare a delicious, healthy meal: there’s a robot for that. So what’s missing?

By Heather Kapplow

Like many new urban lunch spots, Spyce, in downtown Boston, bills itself as serving quickly prepared, excellently flavored, healthful food at a very reasonable price. It’s one of those healthy “bowl” restaurants with a choose-your-ingredients menu in the grain+protein+veggies+ sauce style. But in one critical way, it’s different: At Spyce, robotic woks cook your food while you watch.

The restaurant is the size of a coffeeshop — a small, fast-food-style coffeeshop. One wall is decorated with sketches of characters from “The Jetsons.” The other has framed floral images that inexplicably exceed their frames, extending to the walls between them.

A well-dressed human concierge offers me a menu and directs me to a line, which moves quickly. I almost crash into a fellow customer named Vinh K., who is using his phone to film a robot making his bowl of food. The robot looks like a miniature dryer drum, tumbling food rather than clothing. Vinh K.’s name appears on a round screen above his in-progress meal.

I try to choose what to eat as quickly as possible because I don’t want to slow down the smooth flow of diners.

I’m navigating the subtle differences between the ‘Korean’ and ‘Latin’ bowls, imagining what ‘white sauce’ might be, and guessing whether I’d like ‘freekeh.’

In one way, ordering is simple: I poke my finger at pictures on a tablet, next to six other people doing the same thing. In another way, it’s complicated: I’m navigating the subtle differences between the “Korean” and “Latin” bowls, imagining what “white sauce” might be, and guessing whether I’d like “freekeh.” The concierge is out of my sight line, so I guess yes, ordering a “Lebanese” bowl with freekeh instead of rice and salmon instead of chicken. That bumps the price up from $0.009 per calorie to $0.012 — still a marvelous bargain for actually-nutritious food.

Spyce boasts that every dish is cooked perfectly in three minutes flat. It’s true. My freekeh, which turns out to be fluffy pearled wheat, cooks so quickly that I miss it. It takes me longer to find the screen with my initials on it — “Plating Lebanese Bowl for HK,” it reads — than it took the robot wok to cook my food. I want to start again so I can watch my veggies and romesco sauce spin in the little teflon tub dryer-drum. Instead, I watch the human garde-manger — a restaurant term for the cold-food chef — add the salmon (which turns out to be lox), feta, and chopped fresh cucumber salad on top of my cooked meal. He slaps a sticker with my initials on it onto the bowl’s plastic cover.

I fill my own cup with Hibiscus Ginger Cooler, gather a fork and napkins, then push my way to my seat.

My receipt says I placed my order at 1:23 pm, and it’s 1:27 now.

A robot just cooked me a sustainably-sourced meal based on a James Beard award-winning chef’s recipe.

The music pumping through the room is so godawful, I’ve decided not to Shazam it because I don’t actually want to know what it is.

My fork is compostable.

A stream of diners proceeds through the maze of waiting, ordering, watching, eating.

It’s the 21st century.

I take a first bite of HK’s Lebanese Bowl, and…

It is nothing special.

It’s perfectly cooked. I learn that I like freekeh well enough. The feta and sundried tomato give everything a nice tang. The cucumbers are fresh and crunchy. Though highly caloric for a lunch, it’s all very healthy. If I could only eat one meal a day on a limited budget, this one would do the trick.

But, like all fast food I’ve ever tried, it is soulless. It’s not that the robots have eliminated some warmth I usually experience at McDonald’s. Instead, their succinct replacement of human counterparts emphasizes how robotic these roles have already been for so long. It’s a wholly unappetizing awareness.  

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Heather Kapplow is a writer based in Boston.


Illustration by Dom McKenzie

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