Great ideas never go away. If they fail for some reason, they are revised, updated, and repackaged. The automat is an example of this.
If you’re a resident of New York you may have heard about them, and if you’ve been here long enough, may even have eaten at one. For many years in the 1900s they were very popular with the public -- a convenient place to relax with a hot drink and quick bite or even enjoy a tasty meal.
Automats were popularized by Horn & Hardart. Initially the company sold only coffee, but their shops became so popular that there was standing room only during lunch hours. In the very early 1900s, a salesman convinced the company to install a new European machine, one that would change their coffee shops into a new kind of restaurant that “served” sandwiches, chocolate and wine -- without a waiter.
A forerunner of fast food stores, Horn & Hardart outlets caught on with both residents and tourists alike. Patrons could choose from a variety of sandwiches, soups, pies, and of course, hot coffee. Some of these items were kosher-style (strictly kosher consumers didn’t eat there). In any case, their food gained a reputation as being appetizing and tasty, and was relatively inexpensive, too. And as the name implied, stores were automated, although in truth that was actually a bit of a stretch.
There were always lots of restaurants and fast food outlets in New York, but one of the things that separated Horn & Hardart from the herd was shtick. Consumers could see the food available behind a glass door.
All they had to do was deposit a few coins through a slot next to that item; and the coins unlocked the glass door, allowing the consumer to remove it and take it to any table he or she chose. Studying a menu was no longer necessary, nor was placing an order and waiting for it to be prepared and served.
This enabled patrons to grab a bite and hurry back to work. Others, whose schedules were more relaxed, were able to enjoy a leisurely meal while reading the latest news or the sports pages.
Automats date back to a different era, and back then were quite popular. At one time, Horn & Hardart operated nearly 200 stores, mostly in New York and Philly. In its heyday, the company was large enough for its stock to be listed on the American Stock Exchange, had sales in the hundreds of millions, and employed more than 3,000 workers.
Could automats survive or even thrive these days? Is it possible that automats could make a comeback and once again pop up on the streets of New York and other cities?
Unlikely as this may sound, it is a real possibility; several new automats have already recently opened in the Big Apple and elsewhere and more are in the planning stage. Ironically, although most restaurants were battered mercilessly by the virus, these new stores have learned important lessons and are using them to their advantage.
High Tech And Take Out
New automats may use delicious, old-fashioned recipes, but offering tasty food is no longer enough these days. Improved sanitary conditions, greater health awareness, and high tech also are part of their formula.
New automats allow customers to place their orders using an app or other electronic devices; once prepared, the customer’s name appears on a screen and the delivery box lights up. All the customer need do is type “open” on his or her phone, the glass door opens, and the customer can remove the prepared order.
“We make sure the food is freshly made and that there’s a large variety of it,” Jersey Automat Managing Partner Bobby Baydale told NBC New York. “We stick to the original automat tradition, but upgraded the delivery system.” The high-tech menu offers a huge selection of foods, ranging from basics like macaroni and cheese to pot roast and side dishes.
Customer feedback has been very positive. “You just order whatever you want, don’t have to deal with lines, and get your order real quick and pick it up,” one customer raved.
While convenience is an important selling point, in the COVID era one that’s even more important is health and personal safety. In automats, there is no unwanted interaction with other people, and customers simply take their prepared and packed order.
Years In The Making
The idea of updating automats may look obvious, but it took years to perfect. Now that they’ve reached this point, new automats hope to ride the takeout wave long after the pandemic is finally over.
Small shops like Brooklyn Dumpling House and global brands like Taco Bell “are opening restaurants with futuristic versions of the past,” Mike Grams, Taco Bell President and Global COO, told the Associated Press. “It wasn’t re-imagining something of the past. It was thinking forward and saying, ‘Where do we believe the consumer is going and how quickly can we move with them.’ Many of these things have been in the works for years. COVID has just hit the speed-up button.’”
Automats will certainly appeal to consumers who recall those of the 1900s nostalgically. They will have even greater appeal to those who want to purchase prepared food but are concerned about hygiene and safety.
Still, on the bottom line, it’s the quality and taste of the food that will make or break them. New automats are certainly aware of this and they will do their best to appeal to consumers on all levels. Don’t be surprised if those that do will enjoy a thriving business.
Sources: futuristic automat dining thrived a century ago. can covid revive it? cnbc.com; encyclopedia.com; msn.com; nbcnewyork.com