Bring back the Automat!

Automat in NYC,1936
Public Domain Berenice Abbott/ New York Public Library

In the age after the coronavirus, this is a good idea whose time has come again.

The New York Times recently ran a story on A Retro Way to Buy Meat, from vending machines. It reminded me of a story on my to-do list, about the Automat .

When I was on my first trip to New York City, I had lunch at an Automat. I loved it, so modern and high-tech, except it wasn't really high-tech at all; it was invented in Germany in 1895. There were no robots, just people behind the wall, putting fresh food into slots. Bob Strauss of ThoughtCo explains:

The first New York Horn & Hardart opened in 1912, and soon the chain had hit on an appealing formula: customers exchanged dollar bills for handfuls of nickels (from attractive women behind glass booths, wearing rubber tips on their fingers), then fed their change into vending machines, turned the knobs, and extracted plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and cherry pie, among hundreds of other menu items.

Janet Leigh makes Peter Lawford learn to eat from automat© Janet Leigh makes Peter Lawford learn to eat from automat/ Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

But there was no waiting to order or be served – you just put your money in the slot and got what you wanted, when you wanted it, and you took it back to your seat. All the hard-working (and apparently underpaid) staff were separated, behind glass. As Carolyn Hughes Crowley notes in the Smithsonian,

Customers found many advantages in this style of dining. They could see the food before buying it. They thought the glass-fronted compartments and shiny fittings were sanitary, a comforting reassurance after the food contamination scares of the time.

These days, that comforting reassurance would be nice, the knowledge that the food prep and handling is all done in a separate space. They could build the cases out of anti-microbial copper and provide gloves or wipes for when you open the door.

Eatsa restaurant in San Francisco© Eatsa in San Francisco/ Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Alas, it all fell out of favor with New Yorkers; the more limited menus at McDonald's and KFC meant lower food costs. In the '70s, Horn & Hardat started converting them all to Burger Kings. There was a brief flurry of interest in bringing it back in 2014 when President Obama tried to raise the minimum wage; as I noted in MNN, "There was outrage from the fast-food industry, which threatened to replace employees with robots if the wages went up." A restaurant called Eatsa was the model of the robotic Automat; it closed in 2019.

But there is something attractive about the idea today. They would have to change the seating from the original Horn & Hardarts; according to the Smithsonian, "Diners could sit wherever they chose. Automats could be great equalizers because paupers and investment bankers might sit together at the same table." There was no take-out and no waste; if you were in a hurry, "the company provided stand-up counters similar to those that banks provide for writing deposit slips. These people ate what became known as "perpendicular meals." Perhaps everyone could eat outside now.

This is what we need today: a zero contact, zero waste dining experience. Time to convert those Burger Kings and bring back the Automat.

Model Cindy Heller, wearing a low-cut spotted print dress, purchases a snack from a vending machine in an automat. © "Model Cindy Heller, wearing a low-cut spotted print dress, purchases a snack from a vending machine in an automat." Getty Images

Bring back the Automat!
In the age after the coronavirus, this is a good idea whose time has come again.

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