Fast Food Blast from the Past: The Rise and Fall of the Automat
Here in America, the food service industry serves food at the pace of the people eating it. Sit-down restaurants gave way to counter-service diners that were then bypassed for drive-through windows. Sure, all the aforementioned types of dining establishments still exist, but it goes without saying which of the three ultimately rose above the rest. Why? It addressed and fulfilled a relevant need: cheap food, served quickly.
Up until the 1900s, having food anyplace other than home meant a ‘sit-down’ meal at a restaurant. As cities grew taller, crowds larger, and the walking pace quicker, food needed to follow suit and get with the times. In rural, ‘small town’ America (where the working day was largely determined by when the sun rose and set) there wasn’t any need for food at such a pace. But in a bustling urban metropolis, it became a must.
Wouldn’t it make sense that, in the first decade of the 20th century, America would have vending machines to serve prepared food? It did. And with that, in 1902, the Automat was born in Philadelphia.
Fast food, c.1904.
These machines, however, served prepared food. You’d drop nickels into the slot, turn a knob until a door unlocked, then removed your item from the machine (continually filled from the kitchen behind it). It may have been served by a machine, but it was made by a person. Recipes were cooked from scratch, using recipes they stored in safes (Colonel Sanders wasn’t the only restaurant owner keeping it on the DL). No stale, room-temperature potato chips, here, folks.
This was before color photography could be used on a menu, so you can imagine how appealing it would be to see that perfectly gooey bowl of Mac ‘n Cheese sitting behind the window (right before your eyes, like a Mac ‘n Cheese lobster tank!). Has your mouth ever started watering from reading a hoity-toity chef’s description on a menu? More likely than not it, was seeing the plates brought out to the table next to you that made you hungry. The visual appeal was carried through to the vending machines themselves, highly stylized, polished chrome works of art in the Art Deco style. It may have been cheap food, but it was presented with a high amount of style and thought.
You could eat your food – still hot – as soon as you removed it from the machine, and the instant gratification of the experience was unrivaled. Not even a whiz of a short-order cook could make something instantly, and with that, the popularity of the sit-down restaurant was trumped by the sheer convenience of the Automat. The quality was strictly maintained: coffee was disposed every two hours after it was made, and unsold food was taken to “day-old” stores for resale (instead of being re-heated and used again). It was inexpensive food, yes, but the quality did not suffer. The only thing cheap about this meal was the price.
Andy Warhol needed something to do when he wasn’t painting pantry items.
Seating required no reservations, and specified no dress code: provided there was an open seat, you could sit at any table you wanted to. Entirely democratic and not at all discriminating, a street musician could sit alongside a stock broker and enjoy the exact same food. Without the need for table service, gratuity was unnecessary, and made the Automat accessible to all walks of life. They became such a large part of popular culture that even Andy Warhol frequented them. In their heyday, Automats were as common then as McDonald’s is, now.
So what became the downfall of what seems such a great institution?
The popularity and rise of the automobile: drive-ins and drive-through service rendered the need to walk inside a business unnecessary. Food temperature could be maintained under a heat lamp (or eventually microwaved) just as easily as it could be kept in a warm machine. The last Automat in New York City closed in 1991, much to my chagrin.
A company named “BAMN!” attempted to revitalize the Automat this past decade, but even that closed almost as soon as it opened. In an age of digital transactions and plastic card purchases, change has become irrelevant. As Russell Brand’s Arthur said, “Change! What I used to play with as a child!” The line was meant as a joke from a wealthy man to himself, but is ironic its unintended truth. No one is going to be carrying several dollars’-worth of change in his pockets. Even if a change machine was made available, I can’t imagine anyone going to an ATM, exchanging his Andy Jackson for only-God-knows-how-many-quarters, and then pumping them all in, one-by-one…for a corn dog?!?! I don’t know who would consider that convenient. If they updated machines to accept swiped cards and bumped phones, sure, you would simplify a potentially frustrating process, but you would also be removing a crucial component of the Automat to begin with. And with that said, we likely have seen the end of the Automat here in America.
But things were gained from the Automat’s existence.
Take the mall food court, for example: very similar to the layout of menu options. Instead of things like sandwiches and pies, now you can choose which type of cuisine you’d like, and take it into a public, open dining area.
It certainly upped the game of cafeterias, whose institutionalized food was no match for items made by people, and not machines.
And it definitely revolutionized the potential uses and capabilities of vending machines. Just the other week, a pizza-making machine was introduced into the market. Makes a fresh, hot pizza from scratch.
Sure sounds better than another bag of chips to me.
Ironically, as with most things, what isn’t popular here is still popular in parts of Europe. A company named “FEBO” in the Netherlands still successfully runs Automats across the country, serving things like fish croquettes. And you thought liking soccer sounded crazy.
Do you think this dying and possibly dead institution could ever thrive again in the United States? Would you enjoy the novelty of purchasing prepared food from a vending machine? What kinds of food would you like to see offered if you came across an Automat?
Image credit to Babylon of Wales and Serious Eats.