The First Fast Food Restaurants Were Automats

Contactless dining began at the turn of the 20th century with the automat, and due to COVID, they might be making a comeback.
Marcia Wendorf
1936 Manhattan automatBerenice Abbott/Wikimedia Commons

Imagine this: you're hungry but you don't want to settle for a fast-food hamburger. What you really want is a nice, hot meal, something like meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans, a slice of pie, and a hot cup of coffee. And, you want it NOW.

Rather than being a fantasy of some futuristic restaurant, it's actually our history. Welcome to the automat.

What was the automat?

The automat was a cross between a cafeteria and a vending machine. The first automat, called Quisiana, opened at the Berlin Zoological Garden in 1895. Quisisana allowed customers to insert coins into a glass-enclosed kiosk, and they would receive hot sandwiches, cups of coffee, and even glasses of wine.

Quisiana in Berlin
Quisiana in Berlin Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to two chroniclers of automats, the interior of Quisiana was "a splendid dining room in the Art Nouveau style, lavishly appointed with mirrors, marble, and stained glass."

By 1902, two Philadelphia restaurateurs, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart, imported the vending machine technology from Germany and opened the first U.S. automat in Philadelphia. Horn & Hardart soon became the most prominent American automat chain.

Early Horn & Hardart's
Early Horn & Hardart's Source: Library Co. of Philadelphia/Wikimedia Commons

On July 2, 1912, Horn and Hardart opened their first automat location in Times Square in New York City. Newspaper advertisements they placed touted the restaurants as being, "The New Method of Lunching." Much like today's Las Vegas buffets, diners loved being able to view all of the automat's endless possibilities. Horn & Hardart offered more than 400 items on its menu.

Once a diner had made a selection, they would place the requisite number of coins into a slot next to the dish, and once their payment had registered, they could raise a hinged glass door and remove the item. During lunch, everyone — from white-collar businessmen to construction workers, from secretaries to celebrities — sat together in the automat's communal dining room. Famous people, such as the writer Walter Winchell and the songwriter Irving Berlin, sang the restaurants' praises.

As a tribute to Horn & Hardart's coffee, Berlin composed the song "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," and this became Horn & Hardart's official jingle. In a 1987 article in The New York Times, the playwright Neil Simon extolled the virtues of the automat.

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How an automat worked
How an automat worked Source: Horn & Hardart/Wikimedia Commons

What was going on behind the wall of cubicles was dozens of workers who were cooking and baking, others were quickly filling empty cubicles, and still others were washing dirty dishes. However, the only workers who were visible to the customers were the so-called "nickel throwers." These were women sitting in glass booths who changed bills and larger coins into the nickels needed to operate the cubicle doors.

A runaway success

From 1912 on, the automat concept really took off, due in part to the Spanish Flu pandemic, which lasted from 1918 to 1920. At the height of their popularity during the 1950s, automats were as much of a New York City tourist attraction as the Empire State Building. There were over 100 automats in New York City alone and over 50 in Philadelphia. Every day, more than 800,000 people ate at a Horn & Hardart, making it the world’s largest restaurant chain.

Part of the automats' attraction was their low prices, which were achieved in part by eliminating waiters. This was also popular with customers because they didn't have to tip. According to the Free Lance-Star newspaper, by the late 1950s, automats were attracting 5 million customers a year, who were flocking to the restaurants in search of their favorite dishes. The automats specialized in home-style comfort food, including baked beans, macaroni and cheese, and both savory and sweet pies.

The quality of the automats' coffee was legendary, it was brewed fresh every 20 minutes, and it cost just a nickel. A huge slab of pie went for 15 cents.

The end of an era

During the 1950s, more and more Americans moved out to the suburbs, and the automats became almost empty during dinner time. During the 1970s, food prices rose, which meant that more coins were needed to unlock the magic cubicle doors, at a time before bill acceptors were common. Instead of going to the automat, customers flocked to fast-food restaurants which offered more payment options.

New York City's last Horn & Hardart automat, located at Third Avenue and 42nd Street, closed in 1991, and the company sold most of their locations to Burger King franchisees. Today, all that is left of Horn & Hardart is a 35-foot-long section of food cubicles from the first automat, which is in storage at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

The resurrection of the automat

In 2006, a company called Bamn! opened a new automat in the East Village of New York City, however, it closed by 2009. In 2015, a San Francisco company called Eatsa opened six automated restaurants in California, New York, and the District of Columbia. The restaurants featured ordering on an iPad, and every dish on its menu featured trendy quinoa.

Bamn! automat
Bamn! automat Source: Nricardo/Wikimedia Commons

By July 2019, all of Eatsa's restaurants had closed, but the company went on to rebrand itself as Brightloom, and it partnered with Starbucks. Today, Brightloom sells automation technology, including ordering software, kiosks, and mobile apps, to restaurants.

A company spokesperson wrote, "Brightloom will license aspects of the coffee company’s [Starbuck's] technology surrounding mobile ordering and rewards, offering a version of them on its own hardware and mobile platforms for other food companies to use."

Smullers automat
Smullers automat Source: Willem90/Wikimedia Commons

In the Netherlands, the automat never went out of favor. The Dutch automatiek offers a variety of food, including frikandellen (a sort of minced meat hot dog) and croquettes, hamburgers, and sandwiches. The most well-known automatiek company is FEBO (pronounced fay-boh), which began opening automats in the Netherlands during the 1960s.

FEBO director Dennis de Borst attributed the restaurant's success to the fact that "The Dutch are always on the move and often in a hurry," leading to "the Dutch snack culture," which Borst described as being characterized by "three basic elements: fast, accessible, and affordable." FEBO is famous for being open 24 hours a day, making it especially popular with the late-night crowd.

Automats on trains

In 1954, the first automats on passenger trains were introduced on the Pennsylvania Railroad's routes between New York City and Washington, DC. In 1962, automats appeared on the Cambrian Coast Express, run by the UK's Great Western Railway, and also in 1962, the U.S.'s Southern Pacific Railroad introduced automat cars on its Coast Daylight and Sunset Limited trains.

In 1985, Amtrak converted four of its buffet cars to automats, with the last one being in 2001 on the Lake Country Limited. Switzerland's Bodensee–Toggenburg Bahn introduced automat cars in 1987.

A future for automats

Today, the COVID pandemic has reignited interest in automats, which allow customers to access food without having to interact with restaurant staff. A new automat, Automat Kitchen, opened in Jersey City, New Jersey in early 2021. It features comfort food such as pastrami sandwiches and chicken-and-dumplings pot pie. Another automat, the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, recently opened in New York City.

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