Innovation

Founder of waiter-less fresh food bar Hey Zeus on robots and customer service

Emma Koehn /

The humble Apple store might not automatically conjure images of fresh food, but Newcastle entrepreneur Jacob Beye’s recently-launched salad bar Hey Zeus owes a lot to the famous tech hubs.

The American expat and marketing professional launched the self-serve fast food bar, which is named after his dog and allows punters to place their orders via screens and pick up food via a conveyer belt, after years working on Apple’s store floor and in customer service training roles.

Beye wanted to create a business that sold local, fresh food, that had an eye on customer service and integrated technology well.

He took inspiration from the customer service focus and tech integration of Apple’s retail operations, and says Newcastle was the perfect place to launch a first-of-a-kind business idea.

“One thing [about the city] would be the university here is incredibly engaged in innovation. Another thing would just be the prices, and it’s a bit easier to get things going here.”

The first shopfront opened in June, offering easy ordering off iPads and space for diners to wait for their food to appear. Beye says while there have been some misunderstandings since launching, the technology is there to build a stronger business, not to eliminate people’s jobs.

I think there have been a few misconceptions that it’s taking jobs, but we have seven staff: Two salaried and three casual, and we’re paying over minimum wage,” Beye says. 

While there might not be anyone visibly working at Hey Zeus, behind the scenes the team is busy preparing ingredients.

Not every fresh food is well suited to the model – “The menu has had to be very specifically designed, and while everyone wants avocado, it isn’t easy to serve fresh” – but the plan is to expand to a network of similar robotic cafes.

“We want to open five stores in five years. That was part of our business plan from the very beginning, these things work better at scale,” he explains.

There’s no shortage of reports about when robotics will finally eat into jobs across the globe, but Beye says the Hey Zeus model can maintain jobs behind the scenes, without falling short of customer expectations.

Because we’re in the fast food industry, we’re not really a restaurant anyway. When you’re going to McDonald’s you’re looking for speed, efficiency, more than anything. So we’re not really infringing on [customer expectations] of the cafe and restaurant scene.”

For those thinking about starting a tech-led business, however, it’s all about remembering that you will have to problem solve and use technologies that likely will have never been used for your purpose before.

You do have to have a bit of a knowledge for this stuff . Even though we used a company that supplies at point of sale, we were totally different to what their other customers use it for,” Beye says. 

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Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.

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