Are we primed for a return of the automat?

You might expect that the intersection of contactless delivery, cutting-edge technology, and food occurred in the age of COVID-19, but instead this combination dates all the way back to 1895 when the automat concept was invented in Berlin. Automats quickly made their way to North America thanks to Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart, who opened their first such outlet in Philadelphia at the dawn of the 20th century.

The automat aimed to both democratize and sanitize the dining experience. Customers could drop coins into the vending machine-like cubbies that showcased dishes like meatloaf, sandwiches, and desserts, and extract the food without the need for waitstaff. The concept was popular in large cities and automats expanded throughout the middle of the century before falling out of favor and nearly going extinct by the 1990s. The rise of coronavirus, however, makes the idea of contactless meal delivery popular once again, and a handful of new eateries are experimenting with new (and improved) automats.

Two of these places, Brooklyn Dumpling Shop and Automat Kitchen, are banking on the idea for future growth. Joe Scutellaro of Automat Kitchen says “When you look at restaurant accounting, there are three big costs: the rent, the food, and the employees. So if we can cut down the front-of-house costs, that’s going to make it much easier to be successful and profitable in the restaurant business.” While some foods are more adaptable than others, restaurateurs agree that automats will never replace the intangible but extremely important ambience of a lovely restaurant meal. Would you go to an automat if one opened near you?

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  • SenseiHeidi  on  April 8, 2021

    It sounds like a fun concept. However, with multiple food allergies in our family it would not work for us unless the ingredients of every dish was listed either in store or on a website

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