Fast Food Restaurants Were Supposed To Be Completely Automated by NowS

In the 1989 movie Back to the Future Part II, the food of 2015 looks incredibly familiar — it's just prepared a bit differently. Toss a miniature Pizza Hut pizza onto a pan, stick it into your Black & Decker Hydrator, tell the machine how you want it cooked, and three seconds later your pizza is ready. The appliance even slices it for you.

The December 17, 1989 edition of the Orange County Register took this big screen vision of our fast food future as its jumping off point. Enormous technological changes were coming to the quick service industry, they said. Robots, voice recognition, and credit cards (remember when fast food restaurants didn't take credit cards?) were all just over the horizon:

Re-hydrated pizza is a fantasy today and it may be a while before reality catches up to the movies. But someday, you will be able to drive up to a fast-food stand, place your order with a computer that recognizes spoken words, pay automatically with a card, receive a microwaved meal cooked and wrapped by a robot and drive off without seeing a smiling face.

Jetsons-style technology is already available at scattered fast-food sites today and may be commonplace by the year 2000.

But this futuristic vision of tomorrow's Burger Kings and Dairy Queens wasn't just the imaginative speculation of some journalist in Southern California. The fast food industry was banking on it.

"[The restaurant of the future] could be put together today. The technology is here," John Martin, president of Taco Bell told the Register in 1989. "I would say by the mid-1990s, more and more of the technology that makes fast food more automated will be in place in restaurants."

The article explains that fast food restaurants like Arby's were already testing self-service ordering at select locations. Surely, the fully automated fast food experience would arrive by 2000... right?

That same year, the National Restaurant Association hosted a panel looking at the year 2000. What did the heavy hitters of the fast food industry think the McDonalds of the future might look like back in 1989? They touched on everything from the popularity of genetic engineering to plate presentation. But the Association was less bullish on replacing all fast food workers with robots.

  • Lower calorie, more nutritional menu items will be commonplace.
  • Food experts will find ways to increase shelf life with new packaging technology, such as wrappers that keep food warm until the package is opened.
  • Genetic engineering will enhance the food supply with products such as leaner beef and lower cholesterol eggs.
  • Artificial and natural flavor enhancements will be more important.
  • Chefs will figure out better ways to prepare produce while retaining flavor.
  • Aquaculture, or the controlled harvesting of seafood, will be a major fish supply source.
  • Prettier plate presentation.

There seems to be an inherent conservatism when it comes to the act of eating. Despite all the automation that the industry has dreamt up, there is invariably a need for the human element with something as fundamental as food. At least that's what consumers keep telling the industry — however inadvertently.

Theoretically, many people say they'd love to only interact with robots. But what happens when something goes wrong? Or the robot becomes finicky? Anybody who's interacted with a self-checkout machine at a grocery store or hardware store knows that these robots don't exist for the consumer's benefit. I once had a seemingly minor receipt printing hiccup at Home Depot turn into a 15 minute ordeal.

"I still would prefer a personal face," food anthropologist George Armelagos told the Register at the time. "There is a social interaction in eating that calls for some human contact. We should be able to relax and talk, but our society is moving faster and faster."

The fully automated fast food restaurant may not be commonplace in the U.S. just yet. But with the industry terrified of union organizing and a potential $15 minimum wage, you can expect to see a lot more stories about robot workers.

Just remember to take it all with a grain of salt. A McDonald's filled with nothing but robot workers felt just as close (and inevitable) in 1989.


Image: Screenshot of the Black & Decker Hydrator from Back to the Future Part II