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Eatsa is being sued for not making its automated self-serve kiosks accessible to blind customers

The new restaurant chain makes it possible to order fresh-made food without ever having to interact with a human.

Fully Automated Fast Food Restaurant Opens In San Francisco Justin Sullivan / Getty

Eatsa, a fast-food chain startup known for its nearly human-free, automated self-service technology, is being sued by disability rights advocates for not including accessibility features for the blind in its customer interfaces.

The federal class action lawsuit, which was filed in New York today with the American Council of the Blind as a leading plaintiff, alleges that the tech-centered restaurant chain’s inaccessible kiosk and automated serving technology is a violation of civil rights law.

Eatsa is a small chain based in San Francisco with only seven locations and a limited menu of mostly quinoa bowls. But the company has made headlines over the past year for its pioneering use of touchscreens and automated pickup technology that all but eliminate the need to interact with a person.

At Eatsa, customers order food on a tablet that’s mounted to a stand — if they haven’t already preordered via mobile app. Customers pay electronically or with a card, and when their food is ready, a screen at the front of the store displays the customer’s name. Customers retrieve food from cubbyholes, which require tapping on their doors to open them.

The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of New York, claims that although the technology to make touchscreens and self-service food pick-up usable for blind and low-vision customers is available, the restaurant chain has neglected to add these features.

Eatsa, for example, uses iPads for its in-store kiosks, according to its website. And Apple has for years included screen-reading accessibility technology — which can dictate on-screen items to blind people — in its iOS devices, and has made those tools available to developers.

But “Eatsa has configured its systems so that the [screen reader capability] is not usable on the iPad,” said Rebecca Serbin, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, the nonprofit representing the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit. “So the technology to make Eatsa accessible exists, but Eatsa just didn’t care enough to include that in their design.”

Adding things like a tactile keypad with braille, or making the iPad’s headphone jack accessible — currently obstructed by the frame it’s mounted on — would allow customers with vision impairment to still use Eatsa’s ordering system, according to the complaint.

Though it’s possible for customers at the restaurant to never interact with a human worker, each location does have a staff person or two in the front to assist customers if needed. But the suit further points out that the way customers can request help from one of these employees is also via a button on the iPad, which is not accessible to blind and low-vision customers.

Even the cubbyholes where food is served have no way to opt for audible cues. The whole process is silent, thus making it inaccessible, the lawsuit claims.

Eatsa is still new and, for a fast-food chain, relatively small. The restaurant was founded in 2015 by branding and software pros Scott Drummond and Tim Young. And it perceives itself as a tech company as much as a budding restaurant chain. On the fundraising platform AngelList, its profile includes the tags: “software” “robotics” “food tech” and “industrial automation.”

“The folks that founded and funded Eatsa are not new to the world of business and should have known that there are obligations under federal law to comply with civil rights laws,” said Serbin.

Eatsa has embraced press attention in the last year lauding the chain as being an example of what food service of the future will look like. And to be sure, other chain restaurants, like Wendy’s and Panera, have also started using touchscreen kiosks to allow customers to place orders.

If this trend pans out and the future of customer service really does entail less human interaction, whether it’s for shopping or retrieving packages, those designing the new user interfaces will need to think about how to serve customers who may have accessibility challenges.

It’s also worth noting that some Eatsa’s stores are currently closed for some sort of “rebooting” process. “Big changes are coming!” the company wrote in an email to customers earlier this week, promising a “whole new” Eatsa. We don’t know if that includes any changes to the ordering process, which could include accessibility features. Eatsa did not immediately respond to Recode’s request for comment.

Update 3/24: Eatsa says it’s surprised by the lawsuit, and that all of its technology “is designed to be compatible with the appropriate assistance features.” Here’s the company’s full statement:

We are surprised by this action by DRA. We are strong supporters of the rights of the visually impaired and have served many visually impaired customers since we opened our first Eatsa in 2015. In fact, every Eatsa location is staffed with Hosts that provide personalized ordering and pickup assistance to visually impaired customers, should they desire additional assistance, and all of our technology is designed to be compatible with the appropriate assistance features. We regret that the DRA did not spend time with Eatsa's staff before taking legal action and hope to bring them satisfaction through a more detailed demonstration and understanding of our service. We truly think there is some error in their understanding of the Eatsa technology and service and look forward to working through this amicably so we can continue providing a great service to all of our customers.

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