If the many 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.
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.
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In fact, Uber actively tries to make Uber usage cheaper than car ownership, and has succeeded in some cities for some customers.
Some of the on-demand ride-sharing services seek to replace taxicabs. Others seek to organize existing professional taxis. Either way, these on-demand ride services are seeking to give other cities what Manhattan has always had—the luxury of not owning a car because rides are so cheap and easy.
Fast food delivery
Most Americans can get food delivered to their homes—if you want pizza and perhaps Chinese food or Mexican food. But in Manhattan, your average resident is within range of dozens of great restaurants, grocery stores and even liquor stores that will be happy to bring food and drinks to your apartment. It’s been like that for decades.
The on-demand economy has already produced a dizzying array of Manhattan-like options for getting anything consumable delivered right to your door. App-centric services like Drizly, Sprig, Instacart, Quinciple, Good Eggs, Blue Apron, Sun Basket, Club W, Seamless, Tasting Room, Plated, Munchery, Fresh Direct, Door Dash, Thirstie, Amazon Fresh and Google Express let you get food from restaurants and stores as well as groceries for making your own food and more.
Outsourced pet care
Wherever you go in Manhattan, you’ll see people walking several dogs. Residents have always been able to count on a community of professional dog walkers, who go from client to client collecting dogs with their leashes, then taking the entire pack to a nearby park.
If you live outside of New York—say, in your average suburb, dog walkers are harder to come by. Fortunately, on-demand startups are springing up to help.
By firing up one of the many new dog-walking apps, including Wag, Swifto, Rover or Zingy, you can outsource not only dog walking, but in some cases feeding, temporary boarding and more. You can even get real-time tracking and notifications while your dog is being walked!
Another nice perk for some Manhattan residents is a doorman to manage the entrance to your building. A doorman’s main job is to watch and manage who enters the building. They get to know all the residents and can make sure that anyone who doesn’t live in the building is really an invited guest.
Of course, you can get a Ring Video Doorbell to manage your own door via the included app (a product I use and highly recommend).
Another major benefit of a doorman is that they can sign for your packages while you’re not there, so you can pick them up when you do get home. This is really nice in an economy where we buy so many of our products over the Internet and expect them to be delivered, but where we’re often not home when the delivery gets there. Even if a package is left on the front step, it can be easily stolen. Doorstep package theft is a major problem.
Fortunately, the on-demand revolution has produced a service that will receive your package and deliver it to you when you’re sure to be home. You can schedule the delivery for any time between 6 pm and midnight. The service is called—what else?—Doorman. They’ll even handle package returns.
It’s astonishing to consider that so much of what San Francisco and Silicon Valley are doing with the new generation of on-demand apps is really just trying to bring New York City’s instant gratification conveniences to the rest of the world.