Back to the Future: Automats

Often times, the main justification for dining out is the experience of interacting with or viewing the activities of a food service professional, aka a server, host, chef, and the like. When I recall some of my best memories of eating out, it is often an occasion that was made complete due to a friendly, witty, and attentive wait person, one who helped in making the event more meaningful (and fun). Then again there are  those times when I simply wish to avoid dealing with any apron-wearing homo sapiens while, at the same time, still enjoying an experience that rises above the level of fast food. Such an experience would need to retain some semblance of the time-saving and less costly aspects of fast food establishments. Once upon a time there was a way and it was through a (then) futuristic experience known as the Automat…

Back to the Future

The idea of a restaurant without a wait staff or cashiers goes back some time. It all started in Germany in the latter half of the 19th century and is what led the creator of the automat restaurant, Horn & Hardart, to open his first store in Philadelphia in 1902 and then, in 1912, to take the leap to operating in New York City. At its height, there were a whopping 180 locations in both New York and Philly.

After dropping some change into a slot, a Horn & Hardart automat introduced the customer to what was an early example of quickly served food, availing the diner to a myriad of cuisine choices. One need only insert a coin or two into the vending machine wall for a juicy Salisbury steak, luscious apple pie and any other of a surprising range of American “comfort” foods. In an era that was bereft of the block-to-block Starbucks, Horn & Hardart was known for its fresh-brewed coffee, made available throughout the day by an attentive staff who kept the percolators optimally functioning.

And, In the End…

For most, the idea of an automat conjures up images of well-dressed multitudes in a bygone art-deco like atmosphere enjoying the fare offered in glass-encased boxes.  Surprisingly, Horn & Hardart survived for quite some time, with its last location, on East 42nd Street in Manhattan, closing in 1991. With the mass migration to the spread-out expanse of the Suburb, the new normal for this type of customer demographic became the drive thru burger and fast food joints. (Perhaps not so ironically, many of the old Horn & Hardart automats were turned into Burger Kings…)


Now, many years after the dominance of fast food joints finally put the Automats out of business, new automat-type restaurants are positioned for a comeback. A case in point is Eatsa, which is a fully automated restaurant chain, based in San Francisco, which opened up only in 2015.

Unlike the old Automat, Eatsa diners order their choices via an iPad or on the company’s mobile app. The hidden kitchen staff then makes the food in back, behind the restaurant’s gleaming, neon-lit interior walls. In minutes, the meal pops up in a glass cubby, not different from the Horn & Hardart of old. In a major departure, however, Eatsa’s cubbies light up with the diners’ names until the order is picked up. 

Recently, Eatsa starting focusing on helping “other restaurants to use the Eatsa platform.” This could mean that the (new) automat is poised for a comeback, with Eatsa’s unique and high-tech system of operation being provided in other established restaurant chains. It is easy to imagine how food service establishments could wholly or partially utilize this model to save on labor costs. With the increase in pickup orders for delivery it could also facilitate the myriad of delivery drivers. How do you feel about this potential renaissance of the Automat? Leave your comments below.


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