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Will the Automat Ever Make a Comeback?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 17, 2024
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During the first half of the twentieth century, self-service vending restaurants known as automats were a common sight in many U.S. cities. All you had to do was pop in some nickels, turn a knob, and voilà! – a small door would open, instantly giving you a meal, snack, or drink. The idea caught on because it seemed more sanitary and made dining out more accessible. Diners of all ages enjoyed the chrome-and-glass aesthetic and the futuristic concept. At one point, the iconic automat chain Horn & Hardart served 800,000 people a day, with over 40 automats in New York City alone.

However, by the 1960s, fast food restaurants had begun replacing automats. The last of the original U.S. automats, located at Third Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, closed in 1991. Yet that may not have been the end of the road for this nostalgic style of dining. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, zero-contact restaurants are making a comeback. Today, at eateries like Brooklyn Dumpling Shop in New York City, you can order and pay for a meal on your phone, and when you’re texted, you pick up the food without interacting with anyone. Customers use their phones to unlock an assigned locker that is temperature-controlled for heating and cooling and has UV lights for extra sanitization.

Automats, past and present:

  • The automat concept was invented in Berlin in 1895. Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart opened the first automat in North America in Philadelphia in 1902. Part of that original restaurant still exists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

  • In some ways, the automat never truly went away. The automat concept has persisted in Europe, while food vending technology has flourished in many countries, particularly Japan. Even before the pandemic, some U.S. companies had already launched refrigerated vending machines selling everything from grain bowls and ramen to pastries and raw meat.

  • At old school automats, food may have been sitting around for hours. These days, nothing is pre-made. "We try to make sure the food is freshly made,” explains Bob Baydale of Jersey City's Automat Kitchen. "So we're keeping true to the original automat tradition. We've just updated this delivery system."

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