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It’s Time to Bring Back the Automat

A robot preparing food in an automat

When it comes to the fast-food industry, many assume the birth of quick convenience began in the 1950s. Restaurants like McDonalds and others rose to popularity at that time as Americans’ pace of life accelerated. But in actuality, the fast-food concept began decades earlier in select places. Specifically, hustlers and bustlers in Philadelphia and New York were introduced to delicatessen-style automats as early as 1902. These waiter-less restaurants offer variety of hot meals and beverages ranging from sandwiches to coffee. And given today’s climate, many believe automats are coming back in a big way.

(Bold has written about the Automat before–take a stroll down memory lane here.)

The first appearance of automat returns emerged as the COVID pandemic took a hold over the nation. The contactless encounters of these machines were naturally attractive and inspired several new restaurant concepts. But as the pandemic subsides, the question is whether or not these concepts will survive. According to some, the pandemic was just the start of automat returns as other trends also favor their emergence. Specifically, labor shifts as well as sentiments of novelty and nostalgia could explain why automats are coming back. This restaurant concept has many appealing features, and the time looks to be ripe for the automat to again thrive.

“[Going to the automat] absolutely inspired me to think differently through many years of developing Starbucks. The level of theater, romance and surprise that Horn & Hardart delivered at the Automat shaped how we thought about and built the Starbucks Experience.” – Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks

Nostalgia Driving Automat Returns

As with many concepts that make a comeback, fond memories of the past can play a role. For many who remember the automats decades ago, there is certainly a longing for the “good ol’ days.” In both Philadelphia and New York City, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart were the original entrepreneurs who embraced these unique restaurants. For a nickel, anyone could get a hot cup of coffee from Horn and Hardart’s machines. Sandwiches, pies, chocolates and even wine were other popular items that encouraged automat returns. Many who grew up in the 1960s immediately get nostalgic upon hearing automats are coming back.

The allure of these machines is not necessarily the culinary delights these individuals received. Of course, some items still provide happy memories for some. For instance, Mel Brooks, who grew up in Brooklyn, believes Horn and Hardart’s ham and cheese sandwiches were the best. But it was also the unique experience of putting in a coin and waiting for your selection to appear. Once the automat returns your item, it’s like receiving a special gift that you couldn’t get anywhere else. For children especially, automats trigger happy memories even today. And some of these children are the reason why automats are coming back in more modern styles.

A Novel Experience for Consumers

Interestingly, older adults with past memories of automats aren’t the only ones intrigued by these new types of restaurants. In recent years, other vending machines serving hot food have appeared. Some offer pizza while others actually prepare, grill, and serve gourmet hamburgers. The convenience of these types of meals is appealing to new generations just as they were to those of the past. But they also offer intrigue and novelty based on the same technologies driving robotics and automation. This too is another reason why automats are coming back in revamped varieties. The same concept that captured consumers decades ago looks to be again doing the same today.

Someone desperate enough to eat out of a vending machine
Automats are coming back. Note: this is a photo of a vending machine, which isn’t as cool as an automat.

To be clear, however, not all meal vending machines are the same. Automats of the past, including those of Horn and Hardart, offered tasty treats and servings. Their marble-like frames and food boxes yielded offerings that were appealing to the senses. That’s not necessarily the case with some meal vending machines today. However, automats are coming back today that do take the high road. For example, Automat Kitchen in Jersey City serves piping hot chicken pot pie, mac-n-cheese, and flatbreads. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop in New York makes steamed dumplings as customers watch before their temperature-controlled automat returns an order. These are the types of automats today that will likely thrive because of the novelty they offer.

“On the psychological level, they offer a moment of excited anticipation, almost magical, when you open up a box and find something you want inside.” – Beth Forrest, Professor, Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.

Accommodating Labor Market Trends

Without question, quality food and an interesting concept can help pave the way for automat returns. But these are not the only reasons automatics are coming back in all probability. Notably, the pandemic played a role with contactless meal preparation continuing to be desirable by some. But likewise, changes in the labor market is also supporting trends that favor these changes. Fewer and fewer people want to work in the food service industry, especially when it comes to fast-food. Rising costs of living and tough working environments account for much of these trends.

As a result, it’s not surprising that automats are coming back. If consumers like the food and the presentation, then the need to finding hard-to-find staff can be alleviated. With so many people preferring a working-from-home lifestyle, it’s easy to appreciate that staffing regular restaurants have become more difficult. Automats, like vending machines, offer a great solution in this regard. But unlike vending machines, automats tend to focus on higher-quality servings as well as discount pricing. By addressing labor market pressures today, automats can better meet customer preferences that other options cannot.

Coming to a Town Near You

Currently, automat returns have mostly been spotted in some of the more major cities. But that doesn’t mean many of these innovative restaurants won’t be expanding broadly in the years to come. Inflationary pressures combined with the need for convenience will always drive innovations like the automat. And the better quality that modern technologies now offer will make these machines ever more popular in the years to come. Though the pandemic may have triggered their initial reemergence, it’s these other aspects that will give them staying power. As a result, don’t be surprised to see one popping up in your town in the next few years.


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