Ghost kitchens and digital cafes: How our shared spaces are losing their humanity

The future of food is more streamlined and digital — but is that the future we actually want?

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published January 22, 2024 1:01PM (EST)

Robot arm serving ice cream (Getty Images/chuchart duangdaw)
Robot arm serving ice cream (Getty Images/chuchart duangdaw)

In 1902, Horn & Hardart opened the first automat in Philadelphia. The concept, which was a precursor to modern fast-food establishments, featured rows of coin-operated vending machines, which would dispense a variety of ready-to-eat hot and cold dishes, like cold-cut sandwiches, slabs of meatloaf and slices of pie. Through the years, the automat became both a symbol of frugality (in his 1912 short story, “The Automat,” writer O. Henry described them as "Mecca for the down-and-outs") and convenience. 

Though the popularity of the Horn & Hardart automat gradually dwindled as Americans ceased to live in a nickel-and-dime economy, and the last location eventually closed its doors in 1991, for a moment in time, the automat represented the first step towards a glimmering future free of pointless, time-consuming human contact, ostensibly leaving its inhabitants open for bigger and better things. 

In reality, the transition towards that future is a little clunkier — and a little more fraught with questions about whether it’s the one we really want. 

Last spring, for instance, I stopped into a Starbucks in downtown Chicago on my way to an interview. There were no tables, no chairs — just a large television screen that showed customers’ names chugging through a digital queue, eventually glowing a cool-green to indicate that order was complete and ready for pickup. In late 2019, the international coffee giant had announced they were shutting down hundreds of their cafe locations in order to open a slate of pickup-only stores, an effort the pandemic seemed to only strengthen. This was my first time visiting one, albeit unintentionally, so I approached the barista behind the counter who kindly informed me that she couldn’t take my order or any form of payment; that would all have to be done on their app. 

Since I was on a time-crunch (and honestly didn’t want to ask my ride to deal with finding parking in another location) I downloaded it, ordered and paid for our drinks and stood to the side, dutifully watching my name work its way through the virtual line. While waiting, a dad in a Bears sweatshirt and knit cap came in with his three tween daughters. Like me, he approached the counter and was given the same politely rehearsed spiel. His daughters each pulled out their phones, but he waved them off. 

They huddle for a moment. I hear some exasperated whispers — Nowhere to sit? They won’t take cash? — that finally erupt with the father declaring: “F**k it, we’re going to Dunkin’” 

In instances like this, whether or not these pickup-only stores are actually more “convenient” than a traditional coffee shop is up for debate, but that experience stayed with me for a different reason. More and more, I visit places that used to be brimming with opportunities for community connection, like restaurants and grocery stores and coffee shops, only to be plagued by the creeping sense that as our shared spaces become increasingly depersonalized, they are losing their humanity. 

Of course, science fiction has long predicted the advent of fully automated restaurants and bars, regarding these futures as equally aspirational and apocalyptic. 

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The robot bartender, for instance, is a common character used to signal this reality, one thought to have been originally popularized in “The Stars My Destination,” Alfred Bester’s 1956 novel written at the height of the Atomic Age. Since then, from “Futurama” to “The Book of Boba Fett,” androids and automatons have slung drinks with admirable precision, but often with a complete lack of the emotional intelligence that makes many real-world bartenders so good at their jobs (I think of the Robot Barman in “The Fifth Element” who pours a mean shot, but doesn’t understand Father Vito Cornelius’ brief musings on the vulnerability of humanity). But what would a space devoid of human staff — or at least most of them — actually look like? 

Apart from the tellingly-named ghost kitchens, fast-food companies, the successors of the original Automat, seem eager to find out. In December 2022, McDonald's launched their first largely automated test location in Fort Worth, Texas, which, as The Guardian reported, drew the ire of activists "who criticized the fast food corporation for entertaining the idea of a costly automatic restaurant rather than pay its workers a living wage." 

I visit places that used to be brimming with opportunities for community connection, like restaurants and grocery stores and coffee shops, only to be plagued by the creeping sense that as our shared spaces become increasingly depersonalized, they are losing their humanity.

"Smaller than a typical McDonald's, the location is geared towards customers on the go rather than those who plan to dine inside," the publication reported. "It limits interactions between team members and customers and uses 'enhanced technology that allows the restaurant team to begin preparing customers' orders when they're near the restaurant.'" 

While McDonald’s clarified with the publication that there were still some humans working back-of-house even at their automated location, a CNBC report last year found that to 82% of restaurant positions could, to some extent, be replaced by robots, and automation could save U.S. fast-food restaurants more than $12 billion in annual wages, per the restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates. That’s why more and more companies, including Taco Bell, Wendy’s and White Castle, are adapting their physical restaurants for a more digital future. 

However, despite this industry-wide shift, it’s apparent people are still making bids for intimacy and connection when possible. For example, Dutch grocer Jumbo made headlines in 2019 when they announced the introduction of kletskassa, or “chat check-outs.” Per industry publication Grocery Dive, Jumbo first rolled out the chat checkouts as part of the Dutch government’s campaign to fight loneliness and now positions them, alongside “chat corners” where people can enjoy coffee and small talk, as part of community-building efforts.

As of early March 2023, Jumbo had more than 125 slow checkouts across the Netherlands and Belgium, a spokesperson for the company told the publication. 

It’s a simple, but potent antidote for what many researchers have classified as a global loneliness epidemic, and the ways in which isolation can harm both individual and public health. Third places — a term originally coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg — refers to the places where people spend time between home (“first” place) and work (“second” place). According to the Brookings Institute, for many young Americans, third places are increasingly virtual. “But as Oldenburg notes, the most effective ones for building real community seem to be physical places where people can easily and routinely connect with each other: churches, parks, recreation centers, hairdressers, gyms and even fast-food restaurants,” they wrote. 

They continued: “A recent newspaper article on McDonald’s found that for lower-income Americans, the twin arches are becoming almost the equivalent of the English ‘pub,’ which after all is short for ‘public house’: groups of retirees meeting for coffee and talk, they might hold regular Bible study meetings there, and people treat the restaurant as an inexpensive hangout.” 

In the quest for convenience and efficiency, the evolution of dining spaces, from the historic automats to today's automated and pickup-only establishments, reflects a trajectory toward a future that’s more streamlined, but one that perhaps forgets the soul of shared spaces is undeniably human. 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Ai Commentary Ghost Kitchen Starbucks Technology Third Places