The Automat Returns

The Automat Returns

Under the category of “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” is the return of the Automat.

The original Automat opened in Berlin in 1895.  America’s first Automat was opened by Joseph Horn and Frank Hardart in Philadelphia, in 1902. Their Automat chain, Horn and Hardart, grew in popularity, with over 100 restaurants in New York City by the 1950s.

Restaurants served home-style comfort food.  Many even had a wall of pies, with hot coffee being one of their most popular items.  Diners could see their item through a window, and then insert a coin and turn a chrome and porcelain handle to receive their hot meal.  At its peak, over 800,000 customers ate at a Horn and Hardart’s each day.

The Automat offered customers an efficient and affordable dining experience, with at one time over 400 choices of food.  Behind the scenes, an assembly line of workers replenished the items in the machines.

However, their popularity declined as the popularity of fast food restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, grew to replace them in the marketplace.  In fact, in the 1970s, several of Horn and Hardart’s Automats were replaced with Burger Kings.  In the 1990s, the last Horn and Hardart Automat closed, ending one era.

Today, a new version of the Automat has opened in Jersey City by the name of Automat Kitchen.

Instead of coins, the customer orders online through a webpage or an app, or at a kiosk.  The meal is then prepared fresh and placed in a cubby in a machine for the customer to retrieve.  The Automat Kitchen creates a smooth cashless and contactless restaurant, drawing on Horn and Hardart’s Automat, but with modern-day features.

Video Spotlight: 

This post is based on the Business Insider article, Take a look inside Automat Kitchen, a New Jersey restaurant that only serves food using lockers, by Grace Dean, April 4, 2021; the All That’s Interesting article,  How the Automat Paved the Way for Fast Food in The Early 1900s, by Genevieve Carlton, May 8, 2020; and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

Discussion Questions:

1. What are the advantages of Automat Kitchen restaurants?

Guidance: The big advantage is that orders are placed online, and picked up in a contactless system.  This is a big advantage during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Another advantage is that the order is prepared fresh, it is not premade as it was with the original Automat.

2.  What type of locations would you recommend for future Automat Kitchens?

Guidance: The best locations would be ones that have a high foot traffic count.  High foot traffic areas in larger cities would be good choices.

3.  Do you think that the concept used by Automat Kitchen will catch on?

Guidance: If most of a fast food restaurant’s business is drive-thru, it is difficult to see that this method would be more popular than a drive-up window.  However, if a majority of customers were within walking distance, including passersby, it could have some popularity.

Interestingly, the traditional Automat lives on in Amsterdam at a multi-location chain called FEBO.

Little Caesars is using a similar concept with its pickup portal.


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