The Amazon Go Shopping Experience, free with download of app
(4 of 5 stars) Just walk out! Cool!!! THE FUTURE IS NOW
For better or worse, Seattle is the lab where Amazon conducts its experiments in capitalism. Some are large-scale: flooding a city with high-wage newcomers while reconfiguring the entirety of retail and plotting the takeover of American health care. Some are smaller: testing grocery-store innovations such as AmazonFresh Pickup. The latest in the latter category is Amazon Go. Located not far from the Amazon Spheres (or, as some locals like to call them, Jeff Bezos' Balls), this is the frictionless shop of the future. You grab your pre-made lunch, your legal-cannabis-inspired ice cream, and/or your damn-it-I'm-out-of dish soap, then just walk out. An app sends you a bill. (Usually, anyway: A CNBC journalist accidentally shoplifted a yogurt when its data dematerialized. Amazon responded that it happens so rarely, they're not worried about it – but ending that kind of "loss" is clearly huge for the industry.) The grab-and-go lunch (or breakfast, or dinner) occupies a lot of Amazon Go's shelf real estate, and a lot of it is made on-site, in an actual kitchen (through the exterior windows, you can even see a real stove).
The shop itself is streamlined and clean-lined, like a convenience store subjected to rigorous principles of design. Upbeat music plays. Patrons, in these early days, take lots of selfies, and they pick lots of things up and put them back down while looking around. (Yes, the sentient shop can truly tell that you put it back, unless you're CNBC – we tested this, too.) A man explains that the future is now to his small child: "You can take whatever you want," he says, "but I have to pay for it!" A number of human employees are on-site – handing out bags, checking IDs for beer and wine – but presumably, as the future evolves, they will dissolve. When you're done, you really do just stroll on out. (For $5.99, you can get a souvenir mug that reads "JUST WALK OUT.") My editor, who came along, felt very weird about this seamlessness outside the store afterward – uneasy, guilty. For some reason, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to me – maybe I just live in a future where everything should be free. (Everything is not free. Our detailed, itemized bill arrived in the app shortly, also informing us that we'd shopped for 20 minutes and 11 seconds.)
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Burrata Caprese Sandwich, 9.8 ounces, $7.49
(3 of 5 stars) Pretty good, for grab and go!
Is this expensive for a refrigerated grab-and-go sandwich? Not in Seattle, and especially not when a lot of its 9.8 ounces comprise two giant blobs of burrata (the extra-expensive, extra-creamy version of mozzarella). The burrata tasted, as it should, fresh and luxurious, and it oozed copiously out the sandwich's sides – a good problem to have. Roasted red peppers lent meatiness, and their flavor wasn't overwhelming, for once (the power of burrata!). A balsamic dressing added a pleasant sweet-tart note. But refrigerating a sandwich is inherently problematic, and the ciabatta roll, even after a walk back to the office and having its picture taken, remained chilled and stiff. The greens had the wilty, scrunched, sad look you'd get, too, if you were squished inside a sandwich in the cold for a few hours. It was also impossible to get all the elements in one bite, a classic sandwich downfall. Overall, the Amazon Go Burrata Caprese Sandwich seems like a formatting misfire – why not make it a simple salad topped with two big, beautiful blobs of burrata? Either that, or Amazon's finest minds need to be tasked with transforming the refrigerated sandwich space.
Garlic Sesame Soba Noodles, 5.2 ounces, $3.49
(2 1/2 of 5 stars) Could have been worse
Meant to be served cold, a little noodle dish like this is built for grab-and-go, eat-at-your-desk satisfaction. This version was ... OK. While the dressing achieved an admirable level of garlicky-gingery-spicy flavor, the soba was mushy in texture, and the green onions were highly desiccated. We even tossed it all together, gently, in a real bowl from the newsroom kitchen to give it its best shot (something no one else will probably ever do). Still ... just OK.
Chicken Teriyaki with Spinach, 14 ounces, $7.99
(0 of 5 stars) No, no, no, no, no
Chicken teriyaki started in Seattle, and its greatness is simple and beautiful: chicken, rice and syrupy-delicious sauce. (You're welcome, world.) The syrupy-delicious sauce element means that even just-OK chicken teriyaki makes a completely acceptable lunch. Amazon Go's Chicken Teriyaki with Spinach was, by far, the worst chicken teriyaki I've ever had. The rice separated into individual kernels, ... a la Minute Rice, with each individual kernel individually chewy. The beige-colored chicken possessed an extruded texture, as if it had been 3-D printed (the future is now?!), and the ickily generic savory flavor of TV-dinner turkey (the label noted it was "chicken breast, brined" with "water, salt"). The sauce cloyed, sweeter than any teriyaki sauce ever should be (despite seven ingredients, including sake). The spinach, after the prescribed microwaving, half-wilted and half-slimed. For some reason, there was kimchi. Overall, Amazon Go's Chicken Teriyaki with Spinach tasted distressingly like People Chow: protein + starch + sauce + veg = worker-fuel. Food should be better than this, especially in the future. I'm giving it zero stars, because I can.
Essential Baking Company Brown Butter Pear Tart, 5.86 ounches, $5.69
(1 of 5 stars) Whyyyyyyyyyyyy
Dear Seattle bakeries,
Don't let anyone, not even Amazon, refrigerate your pastries before sale. It makes for dryness, mealiness, tastelessness. I'm not sure why we tried this one – it sounded good, brown butter, pear, tart? It was not good. I know you're better than this! I speak up because I care. One star because you're still way, way better than the Amazon Go Chicken Teriyaki with Spinach.
The Amazon Go Existential Crisis, weightless, free
(1 of 5 stars) Welcome to a very special episode of "Black Mirror"!
Yes, we know how Amazon Go works – sort of. It seems cameras and facial-recognition technology are involved, plus maybe retinal scans or covert neck implants (kidding! I think!). The shop appears to have its own bar codes: runic patterns of black circles and diamonds. I overheard someone ask a human worker how it all works. "I can't really get into the how," he said brightly, then talked up the frictionless greatness. But frictionless comes at a price: The data being gathered on what you buy, what you consider for how many seconds then put back down, how long you shop, and who knows what else is all solid gold to the industry. The ever-more-elaborate assembly of your consumer identity seems a bit ... Orwellian, doesn't it? Another aspect of this social experiment to consider is the bright line being drawn in an already dramatically stratifying city: All are not welcome at Amazon Go. If you don't have a smartphone, you cannot enter the store – your cash, credit or SNAP EBT card is no good here. You cannot buy this food. And this technology is only designed for replication – first at Amazon's Whole Foods, then, possibly, everywhere. Imagine the resultant episode of "Black Mirror" – the gleaming, frictionless class striding happily and seamlessly along, while everybody else ... In any case, are reportedly on the way. The future is now. One star for convenience!