The state of fast food self ordering


When I moved to California in 2015, I was both excited and frustrated to see self order kiosks at Jack in the Box. Excited, because self-ordering as a non-interpersonal experience was something I’d been thinking about for a while, and frustrated because these kiosks were always off / out of service. Reduced operating costs and increased order accuracy seemed like some key selling points for such a setup, and the latter was very appealing to me, as someone who rarely orders food with out removing or substituting some topping. I was out there for a year and a half and never saw one of the kiosks turned on.

Fast forward to today, 2020, and we’ve had self ordering kiosks and apps for a while now. I have used Taco Bell’s kiosk a number of times, and generally liked the experience. It’s funny, the folks assembling orders still get my stuff wrong a lot, but I don’t stress about it as much as when I order with a human. I think the real value I’ve found in it is that I don’t feel pressured to decide my order quickly like I do when a cashier is staring at me as I scan the menu. A side product of that along with a more compartmentalized Information Architecture is that it’s easier for me to discover new menu items.

I don’t go to McDonald’s often, but when I do, I’ve enjoyed using their Kiosk. I went last weekend and was reflecting on the UX of the thing and the bigger service design that that kiosk fits into. A couple of observations / thoughts:

  • It’s weird that as touch screen kiosks become more common, they are getting larger, but we’re still using UI paradigms from the small screen world. ie: the “next” and “back” navigation buttons are at the bottom of the screen which is out of my field of attention, especially when items and status messages still appear at the top. It took me a second to realize what I needed to do next.
  • Physical product human factors are now more into play than they have been in the past. The kiosk works ok for me as a 5’11” person (with the caveat of the point above) but how does it work for a 4′ person.. or a 6’7″ person? At Taco Bell, the kiosk screen seems low for me, and the card reader is positioned strangely for someone of my height.
  • Where does the kiosk interaction fit in the larger experience? McDonalds has tied the digital to the physical with “table tents”. The UI asks you to grab a numbered tent, and enter it’s number.  The server then uses that to find you to deliver your food. Taco Bell just calls out your number for you to retrieve the food yourself. I think it’s a nice touch on the part of McDonalds, but I wonder if the staff who deliver the food get any special training in hospitality. Should they?
  • There are a lot of opportunities to improve or change the larger experience. I think the biggest one is the handling of drinks. Both of these restaurants already do self-serve beverages, but under the kiosk ordering model, you don’t get your cup until your food is delivered. This is kind of a gap from the perspective of the traditional way of ordering where you get the cup as soon as you pay which gives you something to do / enjoy while you wait for the food.  In an even broader context, we can reconsider what the fast food experience is, which could lead to differentiation strategies. I was always fascinated by the strange niche carved out by Steak N Shake – it’s fast(ish) food, but you sit down and have table service. The floundering of that business may be a sign that their model isn’t all that desirable, but maybe there are still desirable elements to it. McDonald’s kiosk + table delivery model gets into that. I appreciate not having to get up to go get my order. Do I need an actual waiter to visit me more than once? probably not. ..or maybe? It would be cool if someone came around offering napkins, condiments, or drink refills occasionally. Similarly, the breadstick person at Fazoli’s was always a motivator for my visits there.

It’ll be interesting to see where fast food goes from here. We’re seeing more trends towards carry out only restaurants (or are those now “food preparers”?) which I suspect will generate a lot of convergence with alternative ordering methods. This will also likely come into play with food delivery, an industry vertical that is showing a lot of demand, but no one has yet managed to do in a scalable, satisfying way.


ribeye burgers

Seeing a recent news headline – “70 Percent of Ground Beef at Supermarkets Contains ‘Pink Slime’” Reminded me to make a post about one of my recent culinary experiments.

I have a tendency to buy steaks at Costco, and that results in me having lots of frozen beef in the fridge. I was trying to eat my way through a package of ribeyes before they got gross, and decided to get creative and make burgers out of one.

ribeye burger process

ribeye burger process

As you can see above, I used the blender. The resulting meat slurry ended up a little too finely ground for my tastes. If I ever do this again, I’m going to err on the side of “chunky”. Interestingly, these cooked through a good deal faster than the ground chuck I usually use.  I think this might be attributed to the fine grind – the fat is in smaller pieces, could melt faster, and perhaps deep fried the meat from the inside out?

The end result was not bad, but I think I’d have enjoyed the steak more.

Banana beer

So I started the experimental banana brew last night that I’ve been mulling over for some time now. I based it off of a vague, traditional Ugandan recipe, but made some significant changes. Most notably, rather than using only banana juice in the wort, I used puree’d bananas. 2 reasons for this.. First, juice extraction seems time and yeild restrictive. While I’ve read that there are scientific methods to yeild up to 75% juice, I’m certain I can’t come near that. Secondly, the journal articles I’ve found regarding banana starch seem to indicate that it’s kind of “self worting”, ie: the ß-amylase breaks down the starches into water soluble sugar chains. This also means that it has high diastatic power, and can break down other starches, in my case, millet flour.

The most questionable aspect of this experiment is the amount of bananas I used. I was shooting for around 1/3 the total volume of the brew, (a 5 gallon carboy) which came out to be 5 bunches. This 1/3 figure was derived from the original recipe, but the 1/3 was the amount of banana _juice_. I expected the whole bananas to be less potent, but to also have a higher fermentable sugar output. since I have neither a metric or means for measuring these yet, it just called it even for the sake of experimentation.

After adding the banana slurry, I added sterilized water with millet flour mixed in. (note1: don’t add flour to boiling water note2: the only place in town I could find millet flour was natures pharm) I then added a dry ale yeast starter that I had pitched about an hour earlier. The reason I went with this yeast was because I had it on hand, no other reason. Traditionally, the natural banana bacterias would be the sole fermentation agents, and may be something that I try later on, but for now I wanted to try and keep it as clean as possible. This included a dilemma as to whether I should heat the wort to try and kill the bacteria. (as I did with the last batch of cider) After talking to Belinda and Nancy about it briefly, it seemed like the heat might interfere with the natural starch->sugar process, and if my pitched yeast was strong enough, it would probably overwhelm the natural stuff anyhow.

banana beer in fermenters

banana beer in fermenters

There was little activity last night, but when I got up this morning I found a decent amount of off-gassing, as well as an airlock full of banana sludge. The brew had settled out and about half the carboy was traub. This is my main reason for doubting the amount of bananas added, but I’m hoping that the solids will continue to break down as the yeast works. To this end, I’m planning on agitating it daily, and I’m guessing I’ll be changing the airlock daily as well. My only concern other than the solids is the mystery esters that may be produced.. but then again, if I knew what was going to happen, it wouldn’t be much of an experiment.

Roast Burger? ..more like Gross Burger.

I’ve not posted any fast food in a while, so I guess it’s time.

Arby’s Roast Burgers have been available for a while, and once I realized that they were just roast beef sandwiches with “seasonings” added and dressed like a burger, I decided that I didn’t want one. As is usually the case, the temptation of saving a few buck lured me in – the Arby’s e-mail list sent out another round of “Free Roast Burger with the purchase of any drink” coupons.

To be concise, the Roast Burger was awful. The particular variety I had was the BBQ Bacon Cheddar. It’s possible that some part of it was good, but there’s no way I would have known because the BBQ sauce was kind of gross and overpowered everything else on the sandwich with the exception of the occasional stale tasting fried onion things on top. Now that I think about it, the BBQ was so overwhelming that I can’t even remember eating the bacon on the sandwich. I couldn’t really detect the “seasoning” at all, so I can’t comment there, but I think it’s safe to say this sandwich should be skipped. Regular roast beef sandwiches are way better.

Some recent food notes..

I haven’t had time for any real writeups, but in the past couple of months I’ve had a Taco Bell taco with bacon on it(gross), ribs(not great, but edible) and “breakfast shots”(ok except for the cheese sauce. excellent packaging) at Burger King and other fast food disasters, but at the moment, I would like to mention a couple of local-to-Lafayette eateries.

First and foremost, I’d like to publicly state how much of a ripoff the Great Wall Chinese buffet near SR52 and Union is. I’ve only eaten there 2 times. The first was pretty good, and it was a little expensive, but within the realm of reality – around 8 bucks. I went last night, and had some decent, but standard chinese buffet food, but got a bill for $19 something. When I asked, I was informed that the buffet was $18 and the rest was the cost of a drink. I don’t know how exactly this happened, but I can’t imagine they would be as busy as they were if it was 18 bucks for a buffet. especially when En Lai has a better one and it’s only $5. Either way, never going back there again.

Second, I’ve had some good sushi experiences lately. Unfortunately, the Bluefin Grill ended their all you can eat lunch sushi deal, but as a result, I found myself going to Ah-Z at Chauncey hill a lot. Ah-Z totally sucked the first time I ate there, but has improved vastly. The rolls are big, the rice is not to dry and the price is reasonable. They’ve also got a pretty good chicken katsu bento that comes with a salad, soup, and a couple pieces of tempura.

I also finally had a chance to stop in Maru sushi recently. It wasn’t super upscale, but it’s a nice place. I had an avocado and cucumber roll and a couple pieces of maguro. It was very fresh, and I got some soup and a couple of sides with it. The staff were super nice and the sushi menu was one of the larger ones I’ve seen. Definitely headed back there soon.

Lastly, I wanted to mention the Green Sprout. It’s a cool little pan-asian bakery / eatery right across the street from Maru. I’ve been there several times and really like it. Of primary interest is their Baru sushi, which is kind of like a sushi salad served in a bowl. It’s got rice at the bottom with sushi components like cucumber, imitation crab, fried egg, nori, etc piled up on top of it. It also comes with optional spicy mayo, wasabi sauce and a sweet soy sauce. It was altogether pretty awesome, and much to my pleasure they also have kimchi! They have a lot of other dishes I’m anxious to try.

Food review – Hawaiian Hut

I’m not sure if it’s got something to do with the economy or other factors, but I just haven’t been seeing many interesting developments in the world of fast food. As such, the fast food portion of my blog is shifting more towards the intermediate, sit-down, but still fast restaurants that seem to be popping up around here lately.

So today I am reviewing the Hawaiian Hut. Located at the River Road and State street intersection between Green Leaf and Kibu cafe, The Hawaiian Hut is as the name suggests, Hawaiian cuisine.. apparently. I say apparently because I don’t really know what Hawaiian food is like. The menu seems to be mostly made up of a meat item served with rice and fruit. There are also a few salads, barbecue ribs and grilled salmon, etc. It seems like this is the only restaurant of the chain, but they have a franchise link on their site, so maybe more will come.

I was unsure what to get so I took the cashiers advice and hat the Teri Hamburger Steak in the smaller size. It consisted of two small hamburger patties cooked in a very weak teriyaki sauce with a pineapple ring on each. The burgers were served on a bed of diced avocado, mango and tomato with a side of rice and some raw pineapple slices. Everything was about as one would expect. In fact I think I was a little let down that it wasn’t any weirder than it was. It was all tasty though. I think the avocado and mango were the best part for me.

The bottom line is that Hawaiian Hut has some pretty good food, but the value (nine dollars and change for a small meal and drink) is not really there. I think the bright simulated cabana decor might be a draw for the place, especially on a cold day like this, but the price tag still seems a little off when you consider that I can totally pig out next door at Kibu for less. Still, definitely worth a try, and could be a nice place for dates, etc.

Hawaiian Hut Teri Hamburger Steak – 7/10 stars

Toppers pizza

So I managed to get “Free food for a year” from Toppers pizza. The deal was that the first 50 customers on opening day won. I researched and monitored the event, but was too apprehensive about what the free food for a year actually entailed to brave a 24 hour wait in freezing rain. I did stop and talk to the first two guys early in their sit. Said they were just bored. Anyhow, I alerted my brother to the situation, as he too is a fan of free food. I had given up on the idea of waiting, but got a text from him the day of the event at 7:30a saying there were only 35 people in line. (The store opened at 10:30) By the time my brain started working, I figured that there was still a possibility I could win, and headed to the store. I got there at 10:20a and was #66 in line. That wasn’t all-she-wrote though. 13 more FFFAY prizes were to be raffled off. I waited around and got the last one. Oddly, only 3 people who came to the “event” didn’t win. They got free pizzas though.

As it turns out, the terms of the deal are that I have a coupon book with one coupon for each week for a specific item. This week it was a 12″ grinder. Next week it’s a large 2 topping pizza, etc, etc. At around $10 an item, I figure the coupon book it worth around $520 – not bad for waiting in line for a half hour!

For those unfamiliar with Toppers, (as I was) it’s worth noting that it is a Wisconsin based franchise with the first store opening in Champaign, IL. (I am noticing a trend with “college” oriented restaurant chains starting in C/U.. see La Bambas) The West Lafayette store is their first in Indiana. The food seems to be of good quality. The chain’s image seems to be mildly goofy and pop culture centric.. For example, when calling for an order, you get hold options like “hear Morgan Freeman read a page from his diary”, etc. You can check out their site at

So anyway, the food.. So far I’ve had the bacon stix and a baked italian grinder. The bacon stix were pretty good. Similar to Mad Mushroom cheesestix and covered in bacon. They have several other topped cheesestix, and I will investigate those in the coming weeks I’m sure. The grinder was not bad. It was pretty basic, with bread like Quiznos, and for what it’s worth, a 12″ is definitely enough for two people to split.

I’m looking forward to trying out the pizza. I will report on it when I get the chance and see how it fits in Lafayette’s pizza landscape.

Unlimited sushi rolls?

I am somewhat apologetic that my food bloggings have drifted towards the local lately, but I must admit that not much in the realm of fast food chains has really interested me much lately.

So anyway, another local item of interest – the Bluefin Bistro in downtown Lafayette has been doing unlimited sushi rolls for lunch the past couple of weeks. At a $7.95 buy-in, I had to give it a shot. I’ll save an overall review for another time after I’ve had a regular meal there, but for the purposes of this post, I will say that the place is still pretty nice, albeit pretty empty. The wait staff was helpful and not annoying, and the food was more than I’d expect for $8 all you can eat.

That said, the sushi wasn’t _awesome_; merely good. I suspect the lunch special changes things a little, but overall, the rice was a little more dry than I prefer, and the rolls contents were a little skimpy. The special menu consisted of pretty much the standards, with the biggest outlier being the Bistro roll which was asparagus tempura. The rest of the regular menu was somewhat adventurous.

Regardless of the quality, the value is pretty darned good. I recommend checking it out, and I’ll definitely be going back to try their full menu.

Bluefin Bistro Lunch Special – 8/10

Long John Silvers "Freshside Gille" – Gilled tilapia

I’m kind of reluctant to post this review.. You may or may not know, but I’m a long time fan of LJS. Yes, I know it’s greasy and to most people pretty gross, but since an early age, it’s been a comfort food for me. As I’ve gotten older and become more aware of what I put in my body and the effects of my diet, I have often wished that LJS would add some “healthy” items to their menu. Some grilled fish and steamed vegetables would be great, and no other fast food restaurants offer such things.. at least not here in Indiana.

I was glad to see that they had actually done it with their “Freshside Grille” menu, but something kept me from ordering it until recently. I think this is perhaps the biggest hurdle in introducing “healthy” items to an existing fast food menu – people know your menu for those not so good for you items, and that’s going to be their motivation for going to that restaurant. ie: I only thought of LJS when I wanted greasy fish.

I finally got around to trying it, and went with the gilled tilapia. It was disappointing. The fish really didn’t taste a lot like fish. it was covered in some weird seasoning that was entirely what I’d expect from fast food. I don’t know why they put so much on – it seemed like it was once a decent fillet of fish. The fish was served on a bed of rice with little flecks of carrot in it. It wasn’t bad, I suppose. Additionally, there were two sides, a vegetable medley, and a piece of corn on the cob. I opted for slaw instead of the corn. The LJS corn is quite tasty, however it’s a little messy, both by the nature of corn on the cob as well as the pseudo butter they drench it in. I was hopeful about the vegetable medley, but it was even worse than the fish. It appeared to have been cooked in a copious amount of some kind of oil, and the carrots, squash and green beans in it really tasted nothing like they were supposed to. I must say that it didn’t taste bad, but it was as if any natural flavor in the food had been removed and replaced with fast food chemicals. Boo. Lastly, there was a bread stick. It was a weird one indeed, tasting more like a donut than any breadstick I’ve ever had. I really couldn’t speculate as to how it was prepared; the flavor said deep fried, but the appearance said baked. It, like everything else in this meal, was covered in some kind of oil.

I was going to try the other two Freshside selections, but I just plain don’t want to. It’s certainly edible food, but mediocre in that it really isn’t fresh at all, and also because, at least to me, it just isn’t as good as the fried foods they sell.

LJS Freshside Grille – grilled tilapia 4/10 stars

Some of my favorite local meals.

I’ve been meaning to make this post for a while, but I’m just now getting around to it, prompted by a delicious meal a couple of weeks ago. These are Lafayette, Indiana restaurants, so if you’re not local to here I apologize.

One of my favorites for the past year or so is an establishment near campus called Kibu Cafe which specializes in Japanese and Korean cuisine. The most popular dishes there seem to be their huge bowls of noodles. I have a bit of an aversion to extended soup eating, so I’ve not tried them. What I do get though is their lunch special, which includes an entree (Spicy Chicken, Sweet and sour Pork, Chicken Teryaki, Kibu Chicken, or Bulgoki depending on the day of the week) rice, wontons, kimchi, fish cakes and soup. The portion is large and could pretty easily be split, or half saved for left-overs. I have become pretty partial to their soup which is kind of an eggdrop type with cabbage, potatoes and lots of pepper. The sides are pretty excellent too. I highly recommend this to anyone. If you are scared of so-called “ethnic” foods, go on Chicken Teryaki day – it’s a pretty safe bet. I don’t even like Chicken Teryaki, but I enjoy theirs.

Another more recent favorite is the small, but tasty menu at the Black Sparrow downtown. They started off with only upscale bar appetizers like olive plates and hummus, but have expanded to more robust items. My personal favorite is their take on the cuban sandwich. It contains roast pork, sliced ham, swiss cheese, chipotle slaw, yellow mustard and pickle, served on a baguette with fries, salad or soup. I have to say, this has consistently been one of the best prepared meals I’ve had. The pork is roasted expertly. It’s difficult to believe that they do it in house. Also, I went with the salad the last time I got this, and it was remarkably fresh as well.

To keep with my food review theme, here are the ratings:

Kibu Cafe Teryaki Chicken – 10/10 stars
Black Sparrow Cuban Sandwich – 10/10 stars