Automats aren’t finished yet

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If you were hungry in New York during the first half of the last century, there is a good chance you would have called into an automat, which once served 800,000 people every day across the city.

Automats were once seen as the future of restaurants. Customers entered a dining room lined with glass-fronted vending machines containing simple dishes, from macaroni with melted cheese to chocolate cake.

Humans were kept out of sight in the back kitchen, where food was prepared and loaded unseen into the machines. Originally developed in Berlin in 1896, the concept soon crossed the Atlantic and became popular in the northern cities of the United States after the first opened in Philadelphia in 1902. A newspaper ad campaign declared it to be “the New Method of Lunching.”

Automatic restaurants caught the zeitgeist. Moviemakers seeking to capture life in the city featured Automats as the backdrop to encounters between lovers and strangers.

Busy workers loved the speed and convenience, while poets and songwriters loved having a place to ruminate.

Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting, Automat, depicts a woman seated alone at night - quietly radical at the time.

The decline of the Automat came with the arrival of fast food restaurants in the 1950s. Servers could deal with orders for burgers and fries more quickly and profitably than the machines.

The Automat might today be a historical curiosity in New York, but it is not dead yet.

In Amsterdam, there are FEBO restaurants across the city which offer a popular Automat style experience.

And in San Francisco, more than one start-up has tried to revive the Automat.

One company, Eatsa, even opened a branch in New York a few years ago, serving inexpensive vegetarian food via iPads and food lockers. Eatsa later closed all its restaurants and rebranded as a technology company called Brightloom with a new focus on selling its services to other restaurants.

“We are just at the very beginning,” Brightloom’s CEO told Forbes, in words that echo the early days of the automat.

By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design