In Back To The Future Part II, Marty McFly travels to the year 2015 and enters a restaurant called Cafe 80s. He’s greeted by two television versions of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev upselling menu items. Another TV shows Michael Jackson going through the menu with a customer. A bottle of “Pepsi Perfect” rises up from a clear plastic tube within the counter.
While the restaurants of 2018 haven’t quite manifested this 1989 prediction, we may not be that far off.
Starbucks recently announced that it was experimenting with a cashless location inside the Russell Investments Center in downtown Seattle. “Thirty percent of our payments in the United States [are] done with a mobile phone,” CEO Kevin Johnson reported to CNBC. I recently popped into a Starbucks and there were about seven or eight people in front of me. All of them — every single one — made their purchase with their smartphone. By March, the coffee chain is making mobile ordering and payment available to all customers, including those that are not Starbucks Rewards members.
So far, the Russell Investments Center location is the only store to go completely cashless, and the company isn’t saying how long the experiment will last. But as a company spokesperson wrote to the Seattle Times, “The test will help us understand how cashless forms of payment may impact our customer experience.”
Meanwhile, McDonald’s announced a plan to expand its self-service ordering systems. The company plans to invest $2.4 billion in upgrades in 2018.
In October, Shake Shack opened a cashless, kiosk-only location in New York City. The kiosks are manned by “hospitality champs.” Instead of the buzzer that tells you your order is ready, diners at this location will receive a text message. CEO Randy Garutti said that this way, customers are no longer tethered to the restaurant while food is being prepared.
We may not yet have the holographic hosts of Cafe 80s, but we’re on the road to a futuristic fast-food landscape.
Nevin Barich is the Food & Beverage analyst for Industry Intelligence, a Los Angeles-based market intelligence firm. It's the perfect job for him: He loves junk food, he often works besides a glass of Diet Dr. Pepper, and anytime one of the health nuts in his office gives him grief for eating a Big Mac, he gets to smile and say: "Hey, this is my job." Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.